Dry Mouth (Xerostomia)

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Dry Mouth (Xerostornia)
In Cancer Treatment

Dry Mouth (Xerostomia) During Cancer Treatment

When one is on chemotherapy or radiation therapy for cancer, there are some side effects. One of them is dry mouth. Dry mouth occurs when the salivary glands do not make enough saliva (spit) to keep the mouth moist. Because saliva is needed for chewing, swallowing, tasting and talking, these activities may be more difficult with a dry mouth.

What are the Causes of Dry Mouth During Cancer Treatment?

Dry mouth can be caused due to any one or more of the reasons mentioned below:

  • Chemotherapy treatment, which can damage the salivary glands; it also makes the saliva thicker.
  • Radiation treatment to the head, face or neck, which damages the salivary glands.
  • Bone marrow or stem cell transplantation.
  • Medication used to treat the side effects of cancer treatment, e.g. antidepressants, diuretics, some painkillers.


What are the Symptoms and Signs of Dry Mouth?

  • Sticky, dry feeling in the mouth.
  • Increased thirst.

  • Changes on the surface of the tongue.
    • Thick, stringy saliva.
    • Pain or a burning sensation in the mouth or on the tongue.
    • A dry, tough tongue.

  •  Difficulty in wearing dentures.
    • Mouth sores, mouth infections or bad breath.
    •  Difficulty in chewing, tasting, or swallowing and talking.

  •      Tooth decay.
    • Cracks on the lips or at the corners of the mouth.

What are the Problems Associated with Dry Mouth?

In addition to difficulty with eating and talking, dry mouth can cause dental problems. Without enough saliva, the bacteria and other organisms in the mouth can grow too quickly, causing infections and mouth sores.

Are there Things one Can Do to Feel Better?

Dry mouth may or may not be controlled by drugs. The following changes in one's lifestyle may be helpful in relieving the symptoms and may improve the effectiveness of the drugs.

Changes in Lifestyle

  •  Brush teeth at least four times a day with a soft-bristle toothbrush and fluoride toothpaste.
  •  Soak the brush in warm water to make the bristles even softer.

  •        Floss gently once a day.
    •  Do not smoke or chew tobacco.

  •    Rinse the mouth four to six times a day, especially after meals, with a solution of salt and baking soda (1/2 teaspoon of salt and 1/2 teaspoon of baking soda in one cup of warm water).

  •       Use artificial saliva to moisten the mouth.
    • Avoid mouthwashes and other dental products that contain alcohol.

  •     Use a cool mist humidifier, especially at night.
    •  Visit a dentist at least two weeks before starting radiation treatment or chemotherapy to check the health of one's mouth and teeth and follow-up regularly.

Changes in Diet

  • Drink at least eight glasses of water throughout the day. (Consult the doctor, regarding the total fluid intake).

  •    Avoid alcohol, drinks with caffeine (coffee, fea, colas) and acidic juices.
    •  Avoid dry, coarse or hard foods.
    • Moisten dry foods with gravy, sauces, buffer or milk.

  •     Avoid foods that are hot, spicy or acidic. Eat soft, moist foods that are cool or at room temperature.
    •  Avoid acidic or spicy foods that burn the mouth.

  •     Chew sugarless gum or suck on sugarless candies to help increase the saliva flow.
    • Avoid sticky, sugary foods and drinks.

When Should one Call the Doctor?

  • If there is more difficulty while eating, drinking or swallowing, this means there is lesser intake of food and water. This can result in dehydration
  • If pain is not relieved.
  • If having a fever of 100.5°F. or more.

Can one Take any Medication for Dry Mouth?


The most common medications for dry mouth are listed below:

  • Saliva substitutes (substances used to replace moisture and\ lubricate the mouth)

  • Saliva stimulants (increases the secretion and flow of saliva)
  • Dentifrices (paste, liquid or powder used to help maintain oral hygiene)

  • Prescription products, e.g. Guaifenesin, Pilocarpine, Cevimeline, Anethole trithione, Yohimbine, Amifostine Etc.




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