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A dry mouth is a common side effect of many medications but it is of special concern for those receiving treatments for cancer. Chemotherapy and radiation therapy targeted to the head and neck region can lead to the uncomfortable and life-altering condition of dry mouth. There are different categories of dry mouth; one called xerostomia (pronounced zeer-uh-stoh-mee-uh), which is the perception of having a dry mouth, and hyposalivation, which is a measurable decrease in salivary output. Many times these terms are used interchangeably. While it is possible to suffer from a sensation of a dry mouth without having a measurable difference in saliva flow, both are quality-of-life issues that need to be addressed.
The majority of saliva is made up of water, but a small percentage includes materials that are very important to your health and comfort. These substances include enzymes, electrolytes, mucus, and antibacterial agents that assist in the following functions, making both the quality and the quantity of saliva important:
Digestion and the breakdown of food start in your mouth. Saliva moistens food, aiding in chewing and swallowing. Enzymes within saliva start the breakdown of dietary starches and fats. Taste receptors on your tongue need moisture to do their job, so a dry mouth can lead to a condition called dysgeusia, which is a distortion on the sense of taste. Taste distortion is also a common complaint during cancer treatments.
Protecting your teeth
A pH scale shows how acidic or alkaline a substance is. It ranges from 0 to 14 with 7 being a neutral pH. The lower the number under 7, the more acidic the substance is, while above 7 shows how alkaline it is. Ideally, we want our mouths and our saliva close to a neutral pH of 7 (6.75-7.25).
Our saliva contains natural buffers to help keep the mouth near a stable pH. A lack of these buffers can create an acidic environment in the mouth where harmful bacteria can thrive, leading to tooth decay and enamel erosion.
Protects oral tissues from injury
Saliva acts as a lubricant, coating the tissue inside of your mouth and digestive tract to protect against trauma when chewing, speaking and swallowing. A dry mouth can be particularly susceptible to trauma. This is an even greater concern for those at risk for developing ulcerations, called mucositis, during cancer treatments.
Components of your saliva protect your mouth from bacterial, viral and fungal infections. This is very important during cancer treatments when the immune system is weakened, increasing the risks for developing opportunistic infections. One of the most common infections associated with a dry mouth and a weakened immune system is Oral Candidiasis (Thrush).
How to reduce the discomfort of dry mouth and protect your mouth:
Things to avoid:
Taking action to control your dry mouth symptoms can improve your quality-of-life and protect you from dangerous infections during cancer treatments.
You can reach me via my website SideEffectSupport.com.
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Jill began her dental career in 1992 as a Dental Assistant and Receptionist and became licensed as a Registered Dental Hygienist in 1994. She earned a certificate in Oncology Management from the University of Southern Indiana. Jill and her husband are the owners of Side Effect Support LLC, which is dedicated to helping oncology patients manage the oral side effects of cancer treatments.
Jill is a 2014 recipient of the Sunstar Americas/RDH Award of Distinction and a volunteer event organizer for the Oral Cancer Foundation. She is a member of both the American Academy of Dental Hygiene and the American Academy of Dental Oncology. She continues to practice in a general dentistry office in Manitowoc, Wisconsin.
Side Effect Support LLC offers oncology patients a range of products to serve the unique needs that they may face during chemotherapy or head & neck radiation. Visit www.sideeffectsupport.com.
Jennifer has been practicing dental hygiene in the beautiful state of Colorado for 15 years. However, she grew up in a dental office as her mom was a dental assistant.
For the last 3 years Jennifer has embarked on an exciting new turn in her career working in the hospital setting as an Oncology Dental Hygienist. Working mainly with head and neck cancer patients, she navigates dental needs prior to the start of radiation therapy and educates patients on the importance of oral care during treatment and how their dental needs will change in the future.
Head and neck cancer patients face an incredible journey surviving what is considered the most difficult of radiation therapy treatments. Jennifer is honored and proud to play a key role in their support and success.
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