5 Things Radiation Patients Need To Know About Xerostomia

1 October 2015
 Categories: Dentist, Articles


You probably already know that radiation therapy can make your hair fall out or make you feel nauseous, but it can cause a lot of other side effects, too. Radiation therapy can lead to xerostomia, also known as dry mouth. This uncomfortable condition can have serious effects on your oral health. Here are five things that radiation patients need to know about xerostomia.

How does radiation therapy cause xerostomia?

Radiation is toxic to cancer cells, but unfortunately, it is also toxic to healthy cells such as the ones that make up your salivary glands. This damage can occur in multiple ways.

The radiation can lead to swelling in the area around your salivary glands which can then decrease your saliva production. Radiation can also lead to fibrosis of your salivary glands, which means that they are thickened and scarred by excess connective tissue. Xerostomia that is caused by swelling may go away after your treatment is finished, but xerostomia that is caused by fibrosis tends to be permanent.

What are the signs of xerostomia?

The main sign of xerostomia is a dry feeling inside your mouth. You may feel constantly thirsty and you may feel like your tongue is stuck to the roof of your mouth. People with this condition tend to have trouble eating foods that are dry or crumbly and you may also have trouble speaking.

If you wear dentures, you may notice that your dentures no longer stay in place and that painful sores form beneath the dentures. If you notice any of these signs while you're undergoing radiation therapy, make sure to see your dentist immediately.

Why is xerostomia a concern?

Your saliva does a lot more than just lubricate the inside of your mouth. It also helps to rinse away food debris, remineralize your tooth enamel, control the pH level inside your mouth, and control the growth of bacteria. If you don't have enough saliva, food debris will remain on your teeth, your tooth enamel may break down, and bacteria may grow out of control. This creates the perfect environment for a wide variety of health problems.

If you don't have enough saliva, you may develop enamel erosion, tooth decay, gum disease, mouth ulcers, oral cavity infections, bad breath, or many other dental issues. Fortunately, with the help of your dentist, this condition can be managed and the many complications can be avoided.

How do dentists treat xerostomia?

Your dentist may recommend a variety of home remedies to help keep your mouth moist. You may be told to sip water throughout the day, suck on sugar-free candies, or chew sugar-free gum. Caffeine or mouthwashes that contain alcohol can dry out your mouth, so you may be told to avoid these.

If home remedies are not enough to control your symptoms, there are a wide variety of products available on the market that may be able to help. Your dentist may recommend trying products such as artificial saliva, dry mouth toothpaste, or dry mouth mouthwash.

Prescription medications are also available, if necessary. Your dentist may prescribe a medication called pilocarpine. This medication stimulates your salivary glands and helps your body produce large amounts of saliva. The downside of this medication is that it also stimulates your sweat glands, so you may find that you're very sweaty while you're taking it.

Is xerostomia a common complication?

Xerostomia is incredibly common; in fact, almost all patients undergoing radiation treatments for cancers of the head and neck will experience at least some degree of xerostomia.

If you are undergoing radiation therapy for head and neck cancer and notice that your mouth feels dry, make an appointment with your dentist immediately to discuss xerostomia. If you are looking for a new dentist, try checking out a site like http://www.cresthillfamilydental.com.