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:
- Practice meticulous oral hygiene
- Stay hydrated. Swish and sip water frequently
- Carry water with you and keep water bedside
- Drink frequently while eating
- Choose foods moistened with sauces and gravies
- Use a humidifier
- Stimulate saliva with sugarless gums and mints sweetened with Xylitol
- Visit your Dentist and/or Hygienist at least every 6 months for preventive care. More frequent visits may be necessary depending on the severity of your symptoms.
- Use over-the-counter products designed to help dry mouth.
- Breathe through your nose and not through your mouth
- Use products prescribed by your oncologist or dentist that can stimulate saliva production and/or replace some of the protective substances in saliva that are lacking with a dry mouth such as SalivaMAX® Download the script here for use.
Things to avoid:
- Dry, salty and sticky foods
- Caffeine, alcohol and tobacco
- Food and beverages with high acid levels (soft drinks, citric fruits and juices)
- Hard candies (like lemon drops) due to sugar content and acidity
- Lip balms that are petroleum-based
- Mouth rinses that contain alcohol, peroxide or phenol
- Oral care products that have an acidic pH. If you are unsure, call the company and make sure it is neutral or slightly alkaline.
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.