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Oral Hygiene During Chemotherapy

Special Care for Your Mouth While Undergoing Chemotherapy


Updated May 08, 2008

When most people think of chemotherapy side effects, hair loss and nausea are usually the first things that come to mind, not dental and oral complications. Unfortunately, chemotherapy can cause problems in the mouth.

How Does Chemotherapy Affect the Mouth?

People undergoing chemotherapy may experience:
  • mouth sores
  • infections
  • dry mouth
  • bleeding of the gums and lining of the mouth
  • general soreness and pain of the mouth

Why Does Chemotherapy Affect the Mouth?

Chemotherapy works by killing rapidly growing cells. In someone with cancer, the cancer cells are typically the fastest growing cells in his or her body. Unfortunately, chemotherapy also may attack certain healthy cells which normally also grow quickly, like the cells inside the mouth. For instance, the cells lining the oral cavity are fast growing and can be damaged by chemotherapy because they are mistaken by the chemotherapy for cancer cells.

Oral Side Effects of Chemotherapy Can Be Serious

Infection is one of the greatest concerns when being treated with chemotherapy. It is much harder to fight an infection during chemotherapy because the immune system is not as strong. Serious infections can cause treatment delays and the lowering of drug doses.

Eating and swallowing also may become difficult, possibly causing nutritional deficiencies. Foods may taste different because of chemotherapy's effects on the tongue and taste buds.

Preventing Oral Problems During Chemotherapy

Prevention of oral problems during chemotherapy begins before treatment even starts. Your doctor may suggest you see a dentist and dental hygienist a few weeks before chemotherapy begins. He may refer you to a dentist that specializes in caring for patients undergoing chemotherapy.

At the dental visit, you can expect:

Tips to Follow During Chemotherapy

During chemotherapy, follow your dentist's instructions about caring for your mouth. Your oncologist may prescribe a special mouthwash that will help prevent mouth sores that could lead to infection.

Avoid food with sharp edges like chips that could possibly scratch or cut the gums or inner lining of the mouth. You may also want to cut out spicy or acidic foods and drinks because they can cause mouth irritation. Alcoholic beverages and tobacco products should be avoided as well.

Maintaining normal oral hygiene like brushing at least twice a day and flossing. Brushing with a soft head toothbrush may prevent unnecessary irritation and bleeding by the gums. Mouthwashes can be used, but do not use a type that contains alcohol.

If you experience any oral problems during treatment, let your doctor know. Medication can be prescribed to reduce pain, plus your doctor will want to monitor any side effects closely.

Tips to Follow After Chemotherapy is Completed

Oral problems usually go away after treatment is completed. However, some people continue to experience oral problems following chemotherapy. Make sure your doctor and dentist are aware of any persistent side effects.


Chemotherapy and You." 01 June 1999. National Cancer Institute. 08 Feb 2008.

Chemotherapy and Your Mouth." May 2005. National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research. 08 Feb 2007

"Oral Health: Preventing Cavities, Gum Disease, and Tooth Loss At A Glance 2008". 19 Mar 2008. Center for Disease Control and Prevention. 05 May 2008

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