Safe Tips for Cancer Patients To Protect Oral Health During Treatment

Posted on Jun 09, 2023 by William J. Claiborne, DDS MS

Cancer has touched so many in the U.S. It is a major, if not deadly, challenge for not just the cancer patient. The each individual diagnosed, it can also impact the lives of spouses, children, family members, and friends.

The progress in improving the rates of cancer survival in America are, fortunately moving in the right direction. As of January 2022, the National Cancer Institute shares that there are an estimated 18.1 million cancer survivors in the United States, representing approximately 5.4% of the population.

By 2032, the number of cancer survivors is projected to increase by 24.4% and by 2040, it is projected to grow to 26.0 million.

As progress continues, treatment for cancer remains a daunting ordeal. The long treatment time and extreme side effects associated with cancer treatment is seen as simply awful. The oncology teams that surround these patients are amazing, however, and try to lessen the burden throughout.

As a periodontist, I am familiar with the oral side effects of chemotherapy and radiation. I am very dedicated to these patients, and strive to help them be comfortable while protecting their oral health.

What’s important is to care for oral health in a way that keeps the patient comfortable while helping them to avoid any after-effects. This is where I differ with some advice for cancer patients since not all “tips” are good for the teeth and gums. For example, cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy may be advised to suck on on peppermint or lemon drops to relieve dry mouth. Not so fast…

Caring for oral health during any health condition that lowers the immune system can actually support your immune system by lowering systemic inflammation. Research has linked many health problems, including some cancers, to the bacteria of advanced gum disease (periodontitis).

Information shared by the American Academy of Periodontology states:
“Researchers found that men with gum disease were 49% more likely to develop kidney cancer, 54% more likely to develop pancreatic cancer, and 30% more likely to develop blood cancers.”

Oral dryness causes the tissues in the mouth to become inflamed, which places you at greater risk for infection. Insufficient saliva flow ups your risk for tooth decay and gum disease. So, it’s understandable that sucking on candy may help. However, the sugar from this candy that lingers in the mouth for long periods creates a higher risk of gum disease and the demineralization of tooth surfaces, opening the door for cavities.

One article in RDH Magazine shares these cautions for cancer patients:
• Products with drying and potentially irritating ingredients, like sodium lauryl sulfate, can increase risks for oral mucositis (the soft tissues in the mouth).
• Strong flavors can feel too sharp for tender tissue and can increase nausea.
• Inappropriate selection of toothbrush head sizes and bristles makes plaque removal more difficult and tissue trauma is more likely to occur. This may affect the patient’s ability to brush at all.
• Sugary and/or acidic products such as hard candies can increase risks for caries, erosion, and infection.
• Petroleum-based lip balms ultimately keep lips drier and create a dense barrier that can trap bacteria and impurities against the skin, which increases infection risks.

While chemotherapy is known to cause nausea, another common complaint of patients undergoing chemotherapy or radiation is having a metallic taste in the mouth. Just as certain components of oral medications can emerge in saliva, drugs administered intravenously can also emerge in the saliva, causing “metal mouth.”

However, it’s important to note that women who are menopausal or post-menopausal may experience changes in their mouths. They may experience dry mouth, pain and burning sensations in the gum tissue as well as altered taste, especially salty, peppery or sour.

In addition to chemotherapy, “dry mouth” is a common side effect of many medications, including prescriptive and over-the-counter. These include antihistamines, decongestants, painkillers, high blood pressure medications, anti-depressants, muscle relaxants, drugs for urinary incontinence and many others. Some medications, along with chemotherapy, can result in oral sores or spots of discoloration.

Because some spots and discolorations can be symptoms of oral cancer, keeping your dentist aware that you take these drugs helps he or she to monitor these areas closely and appropriately. However, other medications can cause sores in the mouth, inflammation or discoloration of gum tissues. These include those taken for blood pressure and oral contraceptives.

For some cancer patients, our dental laser is an option that can speed healing of these sores and restore comfort faster. Additionally, our Asheville periodontal dental office features advanced technology that often minimizes treatment and enhances patient comfort.

For those who take medications that help to strengthen bones, these have been associated with a rare but serious condition called osteonecrosis of the jaw, known as “death of the bone.” These medications, prescribed to help prevent or treat osteoporosis with certain versions administered by injection.

Osteonecrosis of the jaw commonly occurs after certain dental procedures such as extractions or implant placement. About 90% of those who have experienced osteonecrosis are those who took the medication in repeated high doses due to cancer or other diseases. However, 10% who experienced osteonecrosis were taking much lower doses, mostly intended to treat osteoporosis. Those who currently take these medications or have taken them within the past year should reveal this to their general dentist or dental specialist prior to any procedures – including a cleaning.

Periodontal (gum) disease, teeth with cavities or the loss of natural teeth can negatively affect physical, emotional, and financial quality of life. In addition to treating existing problems, our Western Carolina periodontal office is structured so our patients can avoid long-term damage to oral health. We are known for making patient comfort a priority – at every visit.

For an examination, call 828-274-9440. Or, ask to begin with a consultation.



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