- Understanding Radiation Therapy: A Guide for Patients and Families
- What is radiation therapy? When is it used?
- How does radiation therapy work?
- Do the benefits outweigh the risks and side effects?
- How much does radiation treatment cost?
- Who gives radiation treatments?
- Informed consent
- How is radiation therapy given?
- External radiation therapy
- Internal radiation therapy (brachytherapy)
- Systemic radiation therapy
- Preventing and managing side effects
- Skin problems
- Hair loss
- Blood count changes
- Eating problems
- How will I feel emotionally?
- Will side effects limit my activity?
- Are there long-term side effects I should be concerned about?
- Managing side effects of treatment to certain parts of the body
- Radiation therapy to the head and neck
- Radiation therapy to the brain
- Radiation therapy to the breast and chest
- Radiation therapy to the stomach and abdomen
- Radiation therapy to the pelvis
- Follow-up care
- To learn more
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, 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 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 trying artificial saliva.
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, 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) may 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 probably will want to see you during your radiation therapy to talk to you about caring for your mouth and teeth and help you deal with any problems. Most likely, you will be told to do the following:
- 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.
- Use unwaxed dental tape to gently floss between teeth once a day.
- 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: 01/24/2013
Last Revised: 01/24/2013