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Ask the Dentist: Cancer patients should be aware how radiotherapy can affect saliva

Lucy Stock, dentist at Gentle Dental Care, Belfast, says cancer patients need to be aware of how treatments might affect their saliva

Dry mouth, termed xerostomia, is common after radiotherapy – it is extremely uncomfortable, making speaking and swallowing difficult

SALIVA – we normally give little thought to our spit but we definitely notice when it's not there. Every day in the UK 31 people are diagnosed with a head and neck cancer. With increasing numbers of people undergoing radiotherapy for head and neck cancers there are more people living with the side-effects of not having enough saliva.

Dry mouth, termed xerostomia, is common after radiotherapy. It's not only extremely uncomfortable, it makes speaking and swallowing more difficult and alters how things taste. Food can taste saltier, metallic; you can lose your sense of taste totally; and perhaps even worse, foods can taste foul, like sour milk.

Not being able to chew and swallow easily can reduce how much you eat and how well you eat, leading to weight loss and poor nourishment.

Saliva performs numerous jobs. It starts digestion by breaking down food and flushes food particles from between the teeth. Crucially, saliva contains minerals such as calcium and phosphate that keep teeth strong. So no saliva means that teeth decay rapidly and extensively. Even voice quality can change.

Without enough saliva, bacteria and other organisms in the mouth take the opportunity to grow uncontrollably. Nasty sores and mouth infections, including yeast thrush infections, are run-of-the-mill.

Luckily a dry mouth is usually a temporary nuisance that clears up in about two to eight weeks but it can take six months or longer for the salivary glands to start producing saliva again after radiotherapy ends.

In a 2017 study, out of several treatments tested, the drug pilocarpine gave the most significant improvement in dry mouth following radiotherapy. However, you may experience a side effect, albeit short lived, from this medication and it can take a couple of months to work.

Artificial salivas are available as lozenges, sprays and gels, the downside being that their benefits last only a few hours. The Biotene range is specially designed to help relieve dry mouths and includes toothpastes, mouthwashes and gels to give comfort and protect the teeth.

You can buy small atomiser spray bottles from most chemists and fill them with water or fluoride mouthwash. If you cannot swallow, your nurse or doctor can give you a nebuliser to moisten your mouth and throat. Always visit your dentist before cancer treatments to maximise the health of your mouth.

Relieve a dry mouth by:

:: Sipping water often

:: Avoiding drinks with caffeine which dry out the mouth

:: Chewing sugarless gum

:: Avoiding spicy or salty foods, which may cause pain

:: Avoiding tobacco or alcohol

:: Using a humidifier at night.

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