- Cancer Information
- Managing side effects
- Mouth health and cancer treatment
- Taking care of your mouth during and after treatment
Taking care of your mouth during and after treatment
There are several things you can do to take care of your mouth during and after cancer treatment.
Learn more about:
- General tips
- Keeping your mouth clean
- Keeping your mouth moist
- Managing pain and difficult eating
- When to contact your doctor
- Check your mouth, tongue and teeth daily during treatment. Use the light on a mobile phone or a torch to look for changes on the surface of your tongue, roof of your mouth and insides of your cheeks.
- Tell your treatment team if you notice any changes to your mouth – they may prescribe medicines and mouthwashes that can make you more comfortable.
- If you need to have any dental work, it is important to tell your dentist that you are having cancer treatment.
- Your dentist may be able to apply fluoride treatments, which can slow any tooth decay.
- Try to keep eating nutritious foods to help your body recover from the cancer treatment.
- A speech pathologist or dietitian can help you manage any oral side effects. Find a speech pathologist or an accredited practising dietitian.
- For information on eating well during cancer treatment, see Nutrition and cancer and Taste and smell changes.
- Rinse your mouth several times a day – when you wake up, after you eat or drink, and at bedtime. Ask your doctor or nurse what type of alcohol-free mouthwash to use and how often to use it.
- Try making a mouthwash by dissolving bicarbonate of soda and salt in 1 cup of warm water. While your mouth is very sensitive during treatment, use 1/4 tsp of each ingredient. After treatment is over, you can increase this to 1/2 tsp. Swish it around your mouth, spit it out and then rinse your mouth with plain water.
- If you wear dentures, make sure they fit properly. Wear them only when eating and clean well after use. Ask your treatment team to recommend denture cleaning products that will not irritate your mouth.
- Clean your teeth with a soft-bristled or electric toothbrush and replace regularly (at least every three months) to prevent infection. Use a mild toothpaste recommended by your dentist. Avoid whitening toothpastes, which 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 nurse if they can suggest alternatives to a standard toothbrush.
- Check with your dentist or treatment team whether you should gently floss your teeth. This may not be recommended during treatment.
- Drink 6–8 glasses of water and other fluids throughout the day. Try sugar-free cordial, diluted juices, milky drinks and herbal tea. Carry a water bottle with you and take frequent sips.
- Limit how much caffeine you drink (e.g. from coffee, tea, energy drinks or soft drinks).
- Consider using a cool mist humidifier at night. This can be helpful if you have a very dry mouth – check with your treatment team.
- Suck on ice chips, ice blocks or soft sugar-free sweets, or use sugar-free chewing gum.
- Keep lips moist with a lip balm containing beeswax, shea butter or plant-based oils. Avoid lip balms based on petroleum jelly.
- If you find swallowing difficult, talk to a speech pathologist. You can also try using artificial saliva or oral moisturisers.
Manage pain and difficulty eating
- Take pain medicine as prescribed, particularly before meals, so that eating is less painful.
- Eat foods that are soft, moist and easy to swallow, such as rice, mashed potatoes, mashed vegetables, tinned fruit, minced or slow cooked meat, chicken or fish, soup, scrambled eggs, yoghurt and custard.
- Choose nourishing drinks such as milk, milkshakes and smoothies. Use gravies and sauces to moisten foods and add flavour.
- Avoid foods that irritate your mouth or cause discomfort. These may include rough, crunchy or dry foods (e.g. chips, nuts, toast, crackers), vinegar, spices, salty foods, alcohol, very hot or very cold foods and drinks, and citrus or tangy tomato-based food and juice.
- Try to stop smoking as it will irritate your mouth and make dryness worse.
- Drink through a straw if you have mouth sores. Metal straws may add a metallic taste so paper or plastic straws may be better.
- Try to eat a well-balanced diet including foods from the five major food groups.
- Ask a dietitian or speech pathologist what you can eat to reduce discomfort and help you stay well nourished.
When to contact your doctor or go to emergency
Talk to your doctor about any mouth side effects you have. 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 can’t be controlled
- are unable to eat or drink
- have a lot of bleeding from the mouth or many white spots in the mouth (infection).
Listen to our podcast on Appetite Loss and Nausea
A/Prof Sharon Liberali, Specialist, Special Needs Dentistry, and Director Special Needs Unit, Adelaide Dental Hospital, SA Dental Service, SA; Cecilia Barling, Consumer; Dr Bena Brown, Principal Allied Health Research Fellow in Cancer, and Advanced Speech Pathologist (Oncology), Princess Alexandra Hospital and Centre for Functioning and Health Research, QLD; Lisa Castle-Burns, Head and Neck Cancer Specialist Nurse, Canberra Region Cancer Centre, Canberra Hospital, ACT; Merran Findlay, Executive Research Lead – Cancer Nutrition, Oncology Specialist Dietitian, Royal Prince Alfred Hospital, NSW; Jasmin Mazis, 13 11 20 Consultant, Cancer Council SA; Rick Pointon, Consumer; Prof David Wiesenfeld, Oral and Maxillofacial Surgeon, and Director, Head and Neck Tumour Stream, The Victorian Comprehensive Cancer Centre, VIC; Dr Sue-Ching Yeoh, Oral Medicine Specialist, Sydney Oral Medicine, Royal Prince Alfred Hospital and Chris O’Brien Lifehouse, NSW.
View the Cancer Council NSW editorial policy.