Cancer treatments can cause a lot of unpleasant side effects inside your mouth. Radiation therapy can lead to accelerated tooth decay, known as radiation caries. Here are four things you need to know about radiation caries.
1. How does radiation cause tooth decay?
Radiation therapy works by destroying cancer cells, but it can also damage your healthy cells. If you're undergoing radiation therapy for a cancer in your head, mouth, or neck, the radiation may inadvertently damage your salivary glands. When these glands are damaged, they are not able to make as much saliva. It is this decrease in salivary flow that is responsible for the increase the level of tooth decay seen in radiation patients.
Saliva does a lot more than just keep your mouth moist. It helps to rinse bacteria and food particles off of your teeth and keep them clean between tooth brushing sessions. Saliva also plays a role in re-mineralizing your tooth enamel and preventing cavities from forming in your enamel. If you don't have enough saliva, these functions cannot be performed adequately.
2. How common is this side effect?
Many studies have been done to determine the prevalence of oral health complications among cancer patients. These studies have proven that radiation caries are very common complication of radiation therapy. According to studies, 24% of radiation patients experience this complication.
3. What are the signs of radiation caries?
If you have radiation caries, you may notice a wide variety of symptoms. You may feel tooth sensitivity or tooth pain when you eat or drink hot, cold, or sweet things. You may develop a toothache in one or more of your teeth, and as the decay gets worse, you may notice holes or pits in the surface of your teeth that are visible to the naked eye. Brown or black staining on the surface of your teeth may be another sign that you have decay.
Radiation caries tend to spread to all of the surfaces of your teeth, and once the condition has spread, you may notice that all of your teeth show signs of decay. The decay also makes your teeth weaker, so you may notice that they are chipping or breaking much more easily than they used to. These symptoms can start within weeks of finishing your radiation treatment, so make sure to stay alert for signs of changes in your mouth.
4. Can you prevent radiation caries?
There are many things that your dentist can do to help stave off radiation caries, so if you need to undergo radiation therapy, make sure to tell your dentist. Your dentist can recommend therapy is to help keep your mouth moist and can also examine your mouth for the early signs of decay.
Prevention of radiation caries involves keeping the mouth moist and replacing the lost saliva. There are many ways that this can be done. Your dentist may recommend sipping water throughout the day to moisten your mouth or sucking on sugar-free candies to stimulate the flow of saliva.
Other treatments are also available. Your dentist may recommend using artificial saliva, a saliva substitute that is available over-the-counter. You may also be told to use dry mouth toothpastes or mouth rinses. If these treatments aren't enough, prescription medications are also available that can help to keep your mouth moist.
Fluoride therapy can also be used to help prevent tooth decay. Fluoride can be applied in gel form to your teeth to help strengthen your enamel and keep it safe.
If you are undergoing radiation therapy, make sure to take precautions to keep yourself safe from radiation caries. If you think you may already have radiation caries, talk to a dentist like Dr. Daniel Bade DDS right away.