Some head and neck cancer treatments can cause mouth sores and ulcers and saliva changes. These problems can make eating difficult, but there are ways to manage them.
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Mouth sores and ulcers are a common side effect of chemotherapy and radiation therapy. This is known as oral mucositis. The sores can form on any soft tissue in your mouth and make eating, swallowing and talking difficult. This is usually short term and goes away as you recover from treatment.
Your doctor can give you medicines to reduce the pain when you eat, drink or speak. Some pain medicines can be applied directly to the mouth sores to numb them. It is common to need more than one type of medicine for pain control.
Your speech pathologist and dietitian can suggest foods to reduce discomfort. You may need to choose softer foods and nourishing fluids. If you are unable to eat and drink enough to stay well nourished, you may need a feeding tube to support you during treatment and recovery.
Radiation therapy to the head or neck area and surgery that affects the salivary glands can reduce the amount of saliva in your mouth, make your mouth dry or make your saliva thick and sticky. This is known as xerostomia and it is often long-lasting. Xerostomia can make chewing, swallowing and talking difficult. A dry mouth can also make it harder to keep your teeth and mouth clean, which can increase the risk of tooth decay. See the tips below for some ways to manage a dry mouth.
For more on this, see Mouth health and cancer treatment.
Mouth sores and ulcers
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A/Prof Richard Gallagher, Head and Neck Surgeon, Director of Cancer Services and Head and Neck Cancer Services, St Vincent’s Health Network, NSW; Dr Sophie Beaumont, Head of Dental Oncology, Dental Practitioner, Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre, VIC; Dr Bena Brown, Speech Pathologist, Princess Alexandra Hospital, and Senior Research Fellow, Menzies School of Health Research, QLD; Dr Teresa Brown, Assistant Director, Nutrition and Dietetics, Royal Brisbane and Women’s Hospital, QLD; Lisa Castle-Burns, Head and Neck Cancer Specialist Nurse, Canberra Region Cancer Centre, The Canberra Hospital, ACT; A/Prof Ben Chua, Radiation Oncologist, Royal Brisbane and Women’s Hospital, GenesisCare Rockhampton and Brisbane, QLD; Elaine Cook, 13 11 20 Consultant, Cancer Council Victoria; Dr Andrew Foreman, Specialist Ear, Nose and Throat Surgeon, Royal Adelaide Hospital, SA; Tony Houey, Consumer; Dr Annette Lim, Medical Oncologist and Clinician Researcher – Head and Neck and Non-melanoma Skin Cancer, Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre and The University of Melbourne, VIC; Paula Macleod, Head, Neck and Thyroid Cancer Nurse Coordinator, Northern Sydney Cancer Centre, Royal North Shore Hospital, NSW; Dr Aoife McGarvey, Physiotherapist and Accredited Lymphoedema Practitioner, Physio Living, Newcastle, NSW; Rick Pointon, Consumer; Teresa Simpson Senior Clinician, Psycho-Oncology Social Work Service, Cancer Therapy Centre, Liverpool Hospital, NSW.
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