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Oral mucositis - self-care

Radiation therapy or chemotherapy may cause mucositis (tissue swelling) in your mouth. You may have symptoms such as:

  • Mouth pain.
  • Mouth sores.
  • Infection.
  • Bleeding, if you are getting chemotherapy. Radiation therapy usually does not lead to bleeding.

With chemotherapy, mucositis heals by itself when there is no infection. Healing usually takes 2 to 4 weeks. Mucositis caused by radiation therapy usually lasts 6 to 8 weeks, depending on how long you have radiation treatment.

Taking Care of Your Mouth

Take good care of your mouth during cancer treatment. Not doing so can lead to an increase in bacteria in your mouth. The bacteria can cause infection in your mouth, which can spread to other parts of your body.

  • Brush your teeth and gums 2 or 3 times a day for 2 to 3 minutes each time.
  • Use a toothbrush with soft bristles.
  • Use a toothpaste with fluoride.
  • Let your toothbrush air dry between brushings.
  • If toothpaste makes your mouth sore, brush with a solution of 1 teaspoon (5 grams) of salt mixed with 4 cups (1 liter) of water. Pour a small amount into a clean cup to dip your toothbrush into each time you brush.
  • Floss gently once a day.

Rinse your mouth 5 or 6 times a day for 1 to 2 minutes each time. Use one of the following solutions when you rinse:

  • 1 teaspoon (5 grams) of salt in 4 cups (1 liter) of water
  • 1 teaspoon (5 grams) of baking soda in 8 ounces (240 milliliters) of water
  • One half teaspoon (2.5 grams) of salt and 2 tablespoons (30 grams) of baking soda in 4 cups (1 liter) of water

DO NOT use rinses that have alcohol in them. You may use an antibacterial rinse 2 to 4 times a day for gum disease.

To further take care of your mouth:

  • DO NOT eat foods or drink beverages that have a lot of sugar in them. They may cause tooth decay.
  • Use lip care products to keep your lips from drying and cracking.
  • Sip water to ease dry mouth.
  • Eat sugar-free candy or chew sugar-free gum to help keep your mouth moist.
  • Stop wearing your dentures if they cause you to get sores on your gums.

Relieving Pain

Ask your health care provider about treatments you can use in your mouth, including:

  • Bland rinses
  • Mucosal coating agents
  • Water-soluble lubricating agents, including artificial saliva
  • Pain medicine

Your provider may also give you pills for pain or medicine to fight infection in your mouth.

Alternative Names

Cancer treatment - mucositis; Cancer treatment - mouth pain; Cancer treatment - mouth sores; Chemotherapy - mucositis; Chemotherapy - mouth pain; Chemotherapy - mouth sores; Radiation therapy - mucositis; Radiation therapy - mouth pain; Radiation therapy - mouth sores

References

National Cancer Institute: PDQ Oral complications of chemotherapy and head/neck radiation. Bethesda, MD: National Cancer Institute. Updated January 4, 2016. www.cancer.gov/about-cancer/treatment/side-effects/mouth-throat/oral-complications-hp-pdq. Accessed March 20, 2016.

Review Date 2/6/2016

Updated by: Laura J. Martin, MD, MPH, ABIM Board Certified in Internal Medicine and Hospice and Palliative Medicine, Atlanta, GA. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Isla Ogilvie, PhD, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.

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