- Benefits of good nutrition during cancer treatment
- Cancer and cancer treatment affect nutrition
- Before treatment begins
- Once treatment starts
- Managing eating problems caused by surgery, radiation, and chemotherapy
- For people with weakened immune systems
- How to cope with common eating problems
- Appetite changes
- Mouth dryness or thick saliva
- Mouth or throat pain or sores
- Swallowing problems
- Taste and smell changes
- Weight gain
- Nutrition after treatment ends
- To learn more
- Recipes to try during cancer treatment
Mouth dryness or thick saliva
Radiation therapy to the head and neck areas, some types of chemo, and certain other medicines can cause dry mouth or thick saliva. The glands that make saliva can become irritated and make less saliva, or your saliva can become very thick and sticky. Dryness can be mild or severe.
A dry mouth can increase your risk of cavities and mouth infection. If you smoke, chew tobacco, or drink alcohol, the dryness can be worse.
If you have either of these side effects, drink plenty of fluids throughout the day and eat moist foods as much as possible. Also brush your teeth and rinse your mouth often with a baking soda, salt, and water solution to help keep it clean and prevent infection (recipe follows).
What to do
- Drink 8 to 10 cups of liquid a day, and take a water bottle wherever you go. (Drinking lots of fluids helps thin mucus.)
- Take small bites, and chew your food well.
- Eat soft, moist foods that are cool or at room temperature. Try blenderized fruits and vegetables, soft-cooked chicken and fish, well-thinned cereals, popsicles, smoothies, and slushies.
- Avoid foods that stick to the roof of the mouth like peanut butter or soft bread.
- Moisten foods with broth, soup, sauces, gravy, yogurt, or creams.
- Suck on sugarless candy or chew sugarless gum to stimulate saliva. Citrus, cinnamon, and mint flavors often work well.
- Keep your mouth clean. Rinse your mouth before and after meals with plain water or a mild mouth rinse (made with 1 quart water, 1 teaspoon salt, and 1 teaspoon baking soda – shake well before using). Use a soft-bristle toothbrush. It’s a good idea to gently brush your tongue, too. Ask your doctor if it’s OK to floss.
- Avoid commercial mouthwashes, alcoholic and acidic drinks, and tobacco.
- Limit caffeine intake, from coffee, tea, energy drinks, and caffeinated soft drinks.
- Use a cool mist humidifier to moisten room air, especially at night. (Be sure to keep the humidifier clean to avoid spreading bacteria or mold in the air.)
- Fresh pineapple or papaya may help to thin saliva, but only try this if your mouth is not sore.
- Saliva substitutes are helpful if your salivary glands have been removed by surgery or damaged by radiation therapy. These products add moisture to your mouth.
- Nutritional supplements, like liquid meal replacements, may be helpful. If you can’t get enough calories and nutrition through solid foods, you may need to use liquid supplements for some time. Talk to your cancer care team about this.
What to eat or not eat when you have a dry mouth*
Foods that may cause problems
Meats, poultry, and fish in sauces and gravies
Casseroles, soups, and stews
Dry meats, poultry, and fish without sauces
Breads, cereals, rice, and pasta
Cooked and cold cereals, cereal with milk
Rice soaked in gravy, sauce, broth, or milk
Dry breads, rolls
Fruits and vegetables
Canned and fresh fruits that have a lot of moisture, like oranges and peaches
Vegetables in sauce
Bananas, dried fruit
Vegetables, unless in a sauce or with a high moisture content
Drinks, desserts, and other foods
Club soda, hot tea with lemon (decaf), fruit-ades, diluted juices, sports drinks
Commercial liquid nutrition supplements
Homemade milk shakes; ice cream, sherbet, pudding
Sour cream, half-and-half
Cookies, cake, pie, unless soaked in milk
*Adapted from Eldridge B, and Hamilton KK, Editors, Management of Nutrition Impact Symptoms in Cancer and Educational Handouts. Chicago, IL: American Dietetic Association; 2004.
Last Medical Review: 07/15/2015
Last Revised: 07/15/2015