If you are being treated with radiation therapy for a cancer of the head or neck, you may be at risk of a number of oral health complications. People who are undergoing radiation therapy are at risk of gum abscesses, a serious type of infection. Here are five things that radiation patients need to know about gum abscesses.
How does radiation cause gum abscesses?
When radiation is used to target cancers in your head and neck region, the radiation kills the cancer cells, but it also damages nearby healthy cells, like the cells that make up your salivary glands. When the salivary glands are damaged by radiation, they may produce less saliva, leading to a condition called xerostomia, also known as dry mouth.
Saliva has a lot of important functions inside your mouth. In addition to moistening your oral tissues, it helps to control the growth of bacteria. When you have xerostomia, bacteria may be able to grow out of control, leading to infections such as gingivitis or periodontitis. If left untreated, these infections can spread deeper into your oral tissues and form pockets of pus, known as abscesses, within your gum tissue.
What are the signs of gum abscesses?
If you develop a gum abscess, you will notice pain and swelling along your gum line. The nearby teeth may feel loose or more sensitive to temperature changes. As the abscess progresses, your gum tissue will swell and may look shiny. Your gums may develop a raised point, like a pimple, that allows pus to be released. If pus releases into your mouth, you will experience a bad taste in your mouth and people around you may complain that your breath smells. If you notice any of these symptoms while you are undergoing radiation therapy, make sure to tell your dentist immediately.
How serious is this complication?
Gingival abscesses are very serious. Not only are they painful, but if they are untreated, the infection may spread from your gums to other parts of your body. Abscesses within your oral cavity are a major concern because there are many important tissues and organs nearby. The infection may spread to your sinuses, your jawbone, your brain, or your blood, and these infections may be life-threatening. To keep yourself safe, take gum abscesses seriously.
How are gum abscesses treated?
To treat your abscess, your dentist will first need to drain the pus from within it. To do this, your dentist will need to make a small incision in your gums to access the abscess. The pus will then be drained from the abscess and the area will be thoroughly cleaned. You will then be given a prescription for antibiotics to make sure that the infection is completely eliminated. Once the infection is gone, your dentist will sew up the incision in your gums.
How can radiation patients prevent gum abscesses?
Following a good oral hygiene routine is an essential part of preventing gum abscesses during your treatment. You will need to make sure that you brush your teeth twice a day and floss once a day, even if your gums are sore following your radiation appointments. It's also important to see your dentist regularly for professional cleanings so that any bacteria-filled plaque that you missed with your brush and floss can be removed.
Your dentist may recommend using an antimicrobial mouth rinse to help keep bacteria under control during your treatment. Controlling your xerostomia symptoms is also an important part of preventing abscesses, so your dentist may recommend keeping your mouth moist by taking frequent sips of water. Commercial products such as artificial saliva may also be recommended.
If you notice changes in your gum tissue during radiation treatment, you may have a gum abscess, and need to see a dentist like those at Hurst Family Dental right away.