Taking care of your mouth during treatment

Problems affecting your mouth can be hard to deal with. These side effects often have an impact on the type of food you can eat, your nutrition and general health.

It is important to try to continue eating nutritious foods so your body can recover from the cancer treatment. The Cancer Council publications Understanding Taste and Smell Changes and Nutrition and Cancer may help.

      − Mary, head and neck cancer survivor

Tips to help manage side effects

Consider trying some of the following tips to help you manage oral side effects and prevent infection:

Keep your mouth clean

  • Rinse your mouth every time you eat or drink and at bedtime. Ask your doctor or nurse for advice about what type of mouthwash you should use. You may also try ¼ teaspoon bicarbonate of soda in 1 cup of warm water, or ¼ teaspoon of salt in 1 cup of warm water, or an alcohol-free mouthwash. Swish it around your mouth and spit it out.
  • If you wear dentures, make sure they fit properly. Wear them only during meals, and clean well after use by soaking in denture cleaner. Ask your healthcare team to recommend denture cleaning products that will not cause mouth irritation.
  • Use a soft toothbrush or electric toothbrush and replace regularly to prevent infection. Dip it in warm water to make the bristles softer and use a mild toothpaste recommended by your dentist. Avoid whitening toothpastes as these may irritate the mouth and gums.
  • If your mouth is too sore to brush or bleeds when you clean your teeth, rinse it using the mouthwashes described above.
  • Ask your dentist or healthcare team if you should floss your teeth. This may not be recommended during treatment.

Keep your mouth moist

  • Stay hydrated by drinking 6–8 glasses of water and other fluids throughout the day. Try sugar-free cordial, diluted juices, herbal tea and non-acidic drinks.
  • Limit caffeine intake from coffee, tea, energy drinks and soft drinks.
  • A cool mist humidifier at night can be helpful if you have a very dry mouth, check with your health care team.
  • Suck on ice chips, ice blocks or soft sugar-free sweets, or use sugar-free chewing gum.
  • Use lip balm, petroleum jelly or cocoa butter on your lips.

Manage pain and difficult eating

Take pain medications as prescribed, particularly before meals.

  • Choose foods that are soft, moist and easy to swallow, such as rice, mashed potatoes, tinned fruit, slow-cooked meat, scrambled eggs and yoghurt. Use gravies and sauces to moisten foods and add flavour.
  • Avoid things that may irritate your mouth, including:
    • hard, crunchy, spicy, salty or acidic foods (e.g. fruit juices, curries, chips)
    • alcohol and tobacco
    • very hot foods.
  • If your mouth is dry and you find it difficult to swallow, try using artificial saliva and oral moisturisers from the chemist.
  • Drink through a straw if you have mouth sores.
  • Try to eat a well-balanced diet including foods from the five major food groups.

Contact your doctor immediately or go to emergency

You should always keep your doctor informed about your mouth side effects. However, you may have to contact a health professional or go to the emergency department immediately if you:

  • have a temperature of 38°C or higher
  • feel that your pain is uncontrollable
  • are unable to eat or drink
  • have a lot of bleeding from the mouth or many white spots (infection).

This information was last reviewed in May 2016
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