Mucositis and dry mouth

Mucositis and a dry mouth are considered more severe side effects. They are usually caused by having a combination of treatments (such as chemotherapy and radiation therapy) to treat head and neck cancer.


Mucositis is damage to the cells lining the mouth and digestive tract (gastrointestinal tract or gut).

Symptoms of mucositis include:

  • painful spots or sores in your mouth
  • bleeding in the mouth
  • mouth infections, causing a white coating on the tongue or in the throat
  • difficulty and pain with eating, swallowing or wearing dentures
  • sensitivity to hot, cold, salty, spicy or acidic foods and drinks.

Chemotherapy can cause mucositis anywhere in the gut. Radiation therapy only causes mucositis in the treatment area.

Mucositis may stop you from eating and drinking, and can make it easier for infections to get into your body. It usually gets better a few weeks or months after the end of treatment.

Dry mouth

Dry mouth (xerostomia) can be caused by chemotherapy, medications, surgery or radiation therapy to the head and neck area.

Damage to the salivary glands can reduce the amount of saliva (spit) produced in your mouth.

Symptoms of dry mouth include:

  • not having as much saliva as usual
  • thick or stringy saliva
  • a sticky or dry feeling in your mouth
  • problems chewing, tasting and swallowing
  • difficulty speaking (the tongue may have trouble moving)
  • a ridged or cracked tongue surface.

Dry mouth from radiation therapy to the head and neck area can last for many months after treatment and, for some people, it can be permanent.

This information was last reviewed in May 2016
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