Because chemotherapy targets rapidly dividing cells, the normal cells in your mouth and throat can be damaged by chemotherapy leading to mouth sours, dry mouth, or changes in taste and smell. Also, patients who receive radiation to the head and neck area may experience mouth and throat changes. Ask your health care team if you should expect this side effect. It is important to manage mouth and throat changes so that you can maintain a nutritious diet during and after cancer treatment.
Mucositis (Mouth Sores)
Mucositis is the term for sores in your mouth, on your lips, and in your throat. If it occurs, mucositis starts about 7 days after you receive chemotherapy and can take about 2 – 3 weeks to heal. Mucositis may become very painful and require medication to control the pain.
Sometimes chemotherapy and radiation therapy can decrease the amount of saliva in your mouth so that your mouth becomes very dry and your saliva becomes thick and ropy. Dry mouth can make it difficult to chew and swallow. If radiation has decreased the amount of saliva in your mouth, the problem may persist after treatment is over.
Changes in Taste and Smell
Cancer treatment can make food taste like metal or chalk, have no taste at all, or just taste different. You may find that you no longer enjoy bitter foods or that you prefer the taste of sweet foods. Taste and smell is an important part of eating.
Tips to Manage Mouth and Throat Changes
- Start your treatment in good oral health by visiting your dentist before treatment begins.
- Inspect your mouth and tongue every day for mouth sores, red areas, or white patches. White patches may indicate infection.
- Drink plenty of fluids or suck on sugar-free candies to keep your mouth moist.
- Brush with an extra-soft toothbrush and use fluoride toothpaste.
- Rinse your mouth after meals and before bed with a solution of baking soda or salt and water. Use ¼ teaspoon of baking soda or 1/8 teaspoon of salt in 1 cup of warm water. Avoid mouth washes that contain alcohol because they can dry out your mouth.
- Avoid sharp, crunchy, spicy or citrus foods, alcoholic beverages, and tobacco when your mouth is sore.
- Eat cool or room temperature foods and foods that are soft and easy to swallow, like mashed potatoes, cooked cereals, soft-boiled or scrambled eggs, yogurt and puddings.
- Ask your health care team about saliva substitutes if your mouth is very dry.
- Ice chips or popsicles may reduce pain, but tell your doctor or nurse if you need pain medication for your mouth sores.
If changes in taste and smell are affecting your ability to eat, ask your doctor for a referral to a nutritionist who can help.