Looking after your mouth during radiotherapy to the head and neck

Your cancer team will help you cope with any side effects of head and neck radiotherapy. They will give you treatments if needed. They will also give you advice about looking after your mouth. Try to:

  • keep your mouth moist – sip water or rinse regularly
  • keep your mouth clean – follow your team’s advice about a regular mouth care routine
  • stop smoking – stopping reduces your risk of side effects and helps you recover 
  • avoid alcohol – drinking alcohol or using alcohol mouthwashes can irritate your mouth
  • eat a healthy diet – your team can help if you find it difficult to eat
  • see your dentist regularly during and after radiotherapy.

Looking after your mouth protects your teeth, prevents infections and can help you recover from side effects.

Always tell your cancer team if your mouth is sore or if you are finding it difficult to eat and drink. If you find that drinking makes you cough, tell them as soon as possible.

Coping with mouth problems during radiotherapy

Radiotherapy to the head and neck can cause side effects such as a sore mouth or throat and difficulty swallowing.

Your cancer team will give you advice, support and treatments to help you cope with any problems that develop. Treatments may include:

  • painkillers
  • mouthwashes or gels
  • exercises to prevent jaw stiffness.

Follow your team’s advice carefully. Look at your mouth daily for signs of infection. You can ask your dentist or specialist nurse what to look for. Always tell them if your mouth is sore, or if you are finding it difficult to eat and drink. If you find that drinking makes you cough, tell them as soon as possible. We have more about coping with mouth problems during radiotherapy that you might find helpful.

Your team will also talk to you about mouthcare before and during your radiotherapy. Looking after your mouth can:

  • help protect your teeth
  • encourage tissue healing
  • reduce the risk of problems in the future.

Keep your mouth moist

Radiotherapy to the head and neck often reduces the amount of saliva you can make. Saliva washes your teeth and protects them from decay. This means you have a high risk of tooth decay during and after radiotherapy.

Keep your mouth moist by taking sips of water and rinsing your mouth regularly during the day. Your team may give you an artificial saliva to use. It comes in different forms, such as sprays, gels, pastilles or tablets. You may have to try different types to find one that works for you.

You may also find our information about coping if you have a sore or dry mouth helpful.

Keep your mouth clean

Following a regular mouth care routine is very important. It protects your teeth, prevents infections and can help you recover from side effects such as a sore mouth.

Your team will give you advice. Here are some tips:

  • Brush your teeth (or dentures) every morning and night.
  • Choose a toothbrush with a small head and soft bristles.
  • Use fluoride toothpaste and fluoride gel. The fluoride helps to protect and strengthen your teeth.
  • Rinse your mouth each day with a non-alcohol-based mouthwash, prescribed by your doctor.
  • You could try a warm salt water rinse. To make the rinse, boil 900ml of water. Let it cool to a warm temperature and then add 1 teaspoon of salt. Rinse the salt water gently around your mouth. Then spit it out and rinse your mouth with cold or warm water. Try to do this at least 4 times a day. You should make a fresh rinse each day.
  • Use dental floss or tape to clean in between your teeth once a day. If you are having chemotherapy or radiotherapy, check with your specialist doctor or nurse first.
  • If your dentures are uncomfortable, you may need to leave them out for a few weeks.
  • Only have sugary and acidic foods and drinks at mealtimes.

Stop smoking

Smoking during radiotherapy is likely to make your side effects worse. It also reduces the effect of radiotherapy on the cancer. If you smoke, stopping smoking will help your recovery. You can get information and support to help you stop. We have more information on giving up smoking.

Limit how much alcohol you drink

Alcohol, especially spirits, will irritate the areas affected by your treatment. So, it is best not to drink alcohol or use mouthwashes containing alcohol during radiotherapy.

Eat a healthy diet

Eating can be hard during treatment, but it is important to get the nutrition you need. This will help your tissues to heal, increase your strength and may also reduce your risk of having some long-term effects of radiotherapy.

If you are finding it difficult to eat, tell your specialist nurse, doctor or radiographer. They can refer you to see a dietitian, if you do not already have one. There are lots of things that can be done to help make sure you get the food and nutrition you need.

Your doctor may recommend you have a feeding tube inserted if you are not able to eat enough and you are losing weight. The tube is usually in place for a few weeks while you finish your treatment, and can normally be removed when you start to eat and drink again.

If swallowing is a problem, a speech and language therapist (SLT) can give you advice and support.

We have more information about feeding tubes and how to cope with eating problems.

See your dentist regularly

You should see your dentist every 3 to 6 months and a dental hygienist as suggested by your dentist. Going for regular check-ups means that if you develop any mouth problems, they can be found early when they are easier to treat. Your dentist or hygienist can give you a mouthcare routine you can follow to help prevent problems.

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