Understanding Radiation Therapy

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Side effects from radiation therapy to the head and neck

People who get radiation to the head and neck might have side effects such as:

  • Soreness (or even open sores) in the mouth or throat
  • Dry mouth
  • Trouble swallowing
  • Changes in taste
  • Nausea
  • Earaches
  • Tooth decay
  • Swelling in the gums, throat, or neck
  • Hair loss
  • Changes in skin texture
  • Jaw stiffness

If you get radiation therapy to the head or neck, you need to take good care of your teeth, gums, mouth, and throat. Here are some tips that may help you manage mouth problems:

  • Avoid spicy and rough foods, such as raw vegetables, dry crackers, and nuts.
  • Don’t eat or drink very hot or very cold foods or beverages.
  • Don’t smoke, chew tobacco, or drink alcohol – these can make mouth sores worse.
  • Stay away from sugary snacks.
  • Ask your cancer care team to recommend a good mouthwash. The alcohol in some mouthwashes can dry and irritate mouth tissues.
  • Rinse your mouth with warm salt and soda water every 1 to 2 hours as needed. (Use 1 teaspoon of salt and 1 teaspoon of baking soda in 1 quart of water.)
  • Sip cool drinks often throughout the day.
  • Eat sugar-free candy or chew gum to help keep your mouth moist.
  • Moisten food with gravies and sauces to make it easier to eat.
  • Ask your cancer care team about medicines to help treat mouth sores and control pain while eating.

If these measures are not enough, ask your cancer care team for advice. Mouth dryness may be a problem even after treatment is over; if so, talk to your team about what you can do.

Dental care

Radiation treatment to your head and neck can increase your chances of getting cavities. This is especially true if you have dry mouth as a result of treatment. Mouth care to prevent problems will be an important part of your treatment. Before starting radiation, talk to your cancer care team about whether you should get a complete check-up with your dentist. Ask your dentist to talk with your radiation doctor before you start treatment. If you have one or more problem teeth, your dentist may suggest removing them before you start treatment. Radiation (and dry mouth) might damage them to the point where they’ll need to be removed anyway, and this can be harder to do after treatment starts.

If you wear dentures, they may no longer fit well because of swollen gums. If your dentures cause sores, you may need to stop wearing them until your radiation therapy is over to keep sores from getting infected.

Your dentist may want to see you during your radiation therapy to check your teeth, talk to you about caring for your mouth and teeth, and help you deal with any problems. Most likely, you will be told to:

  • Clean your teeth and gums with a very soft brush after meals and at least one other time each day.
  • Use fluoride toothpaste that contains no abrasives.
  • If you normally floss, keep flossing at least once a day. Tell your cancer care team if this causes bleeding or other problems. If you do not usually floss, talk with your team before you start.
  • Rinse your mouth well with cool water or a baking soda solution after you brush. (Use 1 teaspoon of baking soda in 1 quart of water.)

Last Medical Review: 06/30/2015
Last Revised: 06/30/2015