Looking after your mouth during radiotherapy

Looking after your mouth is important while you are having radiotherapy.

Keeping your mouth as clean as possible will help protect your teeth. Radiotherapy can reduce the amount of saliva you make, which increases the risk of tooth decay.

See your dentist and hygienist regularly. They can show you how to keep your mouth and teeth clean, and pick up any problems early. Fluoride gel and mouthwashes can help.

Looking after your mouth will help your mouth heal during and after radiotherapy. You can take painkillers to help with any soreness. Tell your doctor if you are still in pain in case you need stronger ones or treatment for an infection.

Choosing your food carefully can help avoid discomfort and reduce the risk of tooth decay. If you are having problems eating, there are products and treatments that can help you get the nutrition you need.

Although these side effects are unpleasant, most people find they improve, and gradually go away, after treatment is over.

Caring for your mouth during radiotherapy

It’s very important to look after your mouth during and after radiotherapy. Keeping your mouth as clean as possible can help protect your teeth, encourage tissue healing and reduce the risk of problems in the future.

Mouth care

Radiotherapy to the head and neck often reduces the amount of saliva you can make. Saliva washes your teeth and protects them from decay. So, during and after radiotherapy, you’ll be much more prone to tooth decay. Following a regular mouth care routine is very important, or your teeth could rot very quickly.

You’ll need to see your dentist and oral hygienist regularly. Going for regular check-ups means that if you develop any mouth problems, they can be picked up early when they’re easier to treat.

You’ll be shown how to keep your mouth and teeth clean, and given fluoride gel to apply to your teeth every day. It’s really important to use the gel as it will help to protect and strengthen your teeth.

You’ll be prescribed painkillers to take regularly. It’s important to tell your cancer specialist if you’re mouth is still sore as you may need stronger painkillers or have an infection in your mouth that needs treatment.

If your dentures are uncomfortable, try leaving them out overnight.

If your mouth or throat is sore avoid smoking, drinking spirits and eating spicy, sour, acidic or salty foods. You can be prescribed mouthwashes and protective gels that coat the lining of the mouth.

Choose soft foods and moisten them with sauces and gravies, butter or custard, as this can make eating easier.

If you’re having problems with swallowing, ask to see a speech and language therapist. They can assess your swallowing and give helpful advice.

If you find eating difficult, try high-calorie drinks such as Complan® and Build up®. They are available on prescription or you can buy them from a pharmacy or some larger supermarkets. You should discuss any eating problems with the dietitian or specialist nurse at the hospital. They may prescribe supplement drinks, such as Ensure® or Fortisip®, which are complete meals in liquid form.

Sometimes eating and drinking becomes too uncomfortable and some people need to be fed through a gastrostomy or nasogastric tube for a time.

Once your course of radiotherapy has finished, your mouth will gradually heal and most people get back to eating normally after a few weeks.

Tips for caring for your mouth and teeth during radiotherapy

Here are some tips for looking after your mouth and teeth:

  • Brush your teeth (and dentures) with a small, soft toothbrush after each meal.
  • Use fluoride toothpaste and fluoride gel or mouthwash daily, as prescribed by your dentist.
  • Use dental floss or tape daily to clean in between your teeth (but check with your specialist doctor or nurse if you’re having chemotherapy or radiotherapy).
  • Rinse your mouth with a non-alcohol based mouthwash.
  • Inspect your mouth daily for signs of infection (ask your dentist or specialist nurse what to look for).
  • Take sips of water and rinse your mouth regularly during the day to keep your mouth moist.
  • Avoid sugary foods or sugar in drinks in between meals.
  • Avoid acidic drinks, such as fizzy drinks and fruit juices.
  • Do jaw exercises as advised by your specialist to prevent jaw stiffness.
  • Visit your dentist and hygienist every 3–6 months.

Back to Mouth problems