Cancer Treatment and Care

Cancer and Dental Health

Did you know that cancer patients have a high risk of oral and dental complications?

It is no secret that chemotherapy, radiation, and other cancer treatments are often accompanied by a variety of mild to severe side effects. Many of these side effects can be seen, such as hair loss, or greatly impact one’s day-to-day life, such as fatigue. However, there are some side effects that are often overlooked. Dental and oral side effects are rarely spoken of in the cancer realm but pose a real threat to a patient’s overall wellbeing. While dry mouth or changes in taste seem far from ‘severe’, these side effects can lead to oral complications that make it difficult to hear, talk, chew, or swallow.

What causes oral and dental side effects?

Oral complications occur in approximately 40% of patients who receive chemotherapy, 80% of patients who have a stem cell transplant, and nearly all patients who receive radiation for head and neck cancer.

Chemotherapy drugs slow and/or stop the growth of fast-growing cells. This is extremely effective in combatting cancer cells, but there are some healthy cells that get caught in the crossfire. Cells in the mouth are by nature fast-growing, so chemotherapy affects the ability of oral tissue to repair itself – ultimately resulting in mouth sores. Chemotherapy also disrupts the balance of good bacteria and bad bacteria in the mouth, making the patient more prone to infections and oral health issues.

Patients who have a stem cell transplant face the risk of the transplanted donor cells attacking the patient’s body. This could cause mouth sores, dry mouth, pain from certain foods/flavors, difficulties swallowing, changes in taste, and tightness in the skin/lining of the mouth.

Radiation to the head and neck has the potential to directly damage oral tissue, salivary glands, and bones. These affected areas may scar or deteriorate, causing both short-term damage and long-term complications.

What are the oral side effects associated with cancer?

Like general cancer side effects, oral complications can vary from mild to severe. Patients may experience dry mouth, sores, thickened saliva, changes in taste, tooth decay, difficulty swallowing or chewing, difficulty opening the mouth, infection, bone disease, inflammation, or gum disease. Most of these side effects happen during cancer treatment but they can also commence after treatment ends. Though most oral side effects are not long-lasting or permanent, they can cause permanent damage.

How can permanent damage be prevented?

Most cancer patients have a lot on their plates dealing with their diagnosis, but that does not mean other health measures can be pushed to the side. Cancer patients should continue to regularly visit their dentist for routine appointments and discuss any oral side effects. Outside of routine appointments, patients should continue healthy oral habits, including regular flossing, brushing, and eating healthily.