Understanding Radiation Therapy

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Radiation therapy to the head and neck

Some people who get radiation to the head and neck have redness and soreness in the mouth, dry mouth, mouth sores, trouble swallowing, changes in taste, or nausea. Other possible side effects include a loss of taste, earaches, tooth decay, and swelling. You may lose your hair, your skin texture might change, and your jaw may feel stiff.

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 a few tips that may help you manage mouth problems:

  • Avoid strong spices and coarse foods, such as raw vegetables, dry crackers, and nuts.
  • Do not eat or drink very hot or very cold foods or beverages.
  • Do not smoke, chew tobacco, or drink alcohol – these can make mouth sores worse.
  • Stay away from sugary snacks.
  • Ask your doctor or nurse 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 doctor or nurse about medicines to help treat mouth sores and control pain while eating.

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

Dental care

Radiation treatment to your head and neck can increase your chances of getting cavities. Mouth care to prevent problems will be an important part of your treatment. Before starting radiation, talk to your doctor 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 will 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 doctor if this causes bleeding or other problems. If you do not usually floss, talk with your doctor 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: 05/02/2014
Last Revised: 05/02/2014