How Cancer Treatment Can Affect Oral Health

Common side effects of cancer treatment include fatigue, anemia, nausea, and vomiting. But more than one-third of individuals undergoing treatment for cancer also develop problems affecting their oral health. Getting dental exams both before and during treatment can help protect your teeth, mouth and gum tissue, and the bones in your mouth from potentially serious side effects and damage. A dentist, such as at Dentalcare Associates, can give you information about the oral complications certain cancer treatments may cause, as well as tell you what kinds of mouth problems to watch for.

Effects of Chemotherapy Treatment

Although chemotherapy drugs doctors use to treat cancer kill cancer cells, they can also damage healthy cells in your mouth. Treatment can affect the teeth and gums, salivary glands, and lining of the mouth. Side effects, such as burning or swelling of the tongue, and painful mouth and gums, can make it difficult to talk and swallow. Chemotherapy can also lead to dry mouth and increase your risk of infection. To prevent or limit side effects, it's important to check your mouth daily for any changes and keep your dentist well informed about your oral health.

Effects of Radiation Therapy

Like chemotherapy, head and neck radiation treatments can harm the healthy cells in your mouth. Before starting radiation therapy, see your dentist for a complete dental exam. He or she will check for existing oral problems and treat them to avoid complications while you receive radiation. Side effects related to radiation treatment include painful mouth and gums, sores in the mouth and throat, dry mouth, tooth decay, infection, changes in or loss of taste, and jaw stiffness.

Because mouth ulcers and sores can lead to infection, your doctor or dentist may prescribe medication. Dry mouth can make your teeth more prone to cavities; therefore, it's important to brush your teeth using fluoride toothpaste. Your dentist also will instruct you on how to exercise your jaw muscles to prevent jaw stiffness.

Bone Marrow Transplants

Oral complications of bone marrow transplantation include oral mucositis -- inflammation and ulceration in the mouth -- and infections such as herpes simplex virus and Candida albicans. Since oral complications develop in most individuals who undergo bone marrow transplants, detecting and treating infection early can prevent life-threatening complications.

Oral mucositis occurs as the result of the high doses of chemotherapy and radiation therapy an individual receives to destroy remaining cancer cells in the body prior to bone marrow transplant. These treatments weaken the immune system and can cause severe side effects.

Another potential problem is when bacteria, viruses, or fungus enter the body through mouth sores and ulcers, causing infection. Local infections can lead to septicemia, or blood infection, particularly if your immune system is suppressed, hindering your ability to fight infection. Good oral hygiene and drinking plenty of fluids can help ease painful mouth sores and reduce the risk of infection.