What can I do if I have a dry mouth during cancer treatment?

A dry mouth is caused by a lack of saliva. This can result from radiation to the head and neck, some forms of chemotherapy, and certain medicines.

Dehydration, smoking, and not eating and drinking enough can also cause a dry mouth. A dry mouth due to radiation can be permanent. In this case, drinking a lot will not help. It’s important to keep your mouth clean and moist to reduce the risk of infections.

What can I do?

Rinse your mouth regularly

Rinsing your mouth with saline can help protect against a dry mouth. After rinsing with saline, rinse your mouth with plain water.

You can make the saline yourself by adding 2tsps of table salt to 1 litre of lukewarm water. Prepare a new solution every day. At the pharmacy, you can buy empty bottles to fill with the saline solution for use at home and on the go.

There are also different types of artificial saliva and dry mouth products. Talk to your nurse or dental hygienist to find out if this would be useful for you. You can get artificial saliva without a prescription at the pharmacy.

Always have something to drink on hand

Make sure you always have a drink within reach day or night. Always take a water bottle with you. Take small sips of water during the day. Avoid acidic drinks such as fizzy drinks or try drinking through a straw. Because you have less saliva, your teeth are not protected as much against acid, and you are more likely to get dental erosion.

Keep your mouth clean

With a dry mouth you have a higher chance of inflammation and tooth decay. Therefore, brush your teeth after every meal, but don’t brush your teeth more than four times a day. Use a soft toothbrush and toothpaste containing fluoride. To clean the space between the teeth, use floss thread, soft picks, or brushes once a day. If necessary, clean the tongue with a toothbrush or a special tongue cleaner.

If you have dentures, leave them out overnight and store them dry in a container; clean them beforehand. Clean dentures once a week in one part vinegar and one part water. Clean your gums with a gauze swab soaked in saline solution.

Also, take good care of your lips by regularly using lip balm.

Rinse your mouth well after every meal and after eating sugary or acidic food or drink.

Eat sour foods

Eating sour foods can help thin your saliva. This includes foods such as pineapple, pickles, cucumber, apple, kiwi, tomatoes, seedless grapes, tangerines, and oranges. It is best to avoid sour foods when your mouth is sore as eating acidic foods may cause some discomfort.

Chew your food well

Chewing creates more saliva. Chewing sugar-free chewing gum, cucumber, or pieces of carrot can increase saliva. Sucking on sugar-free may also help produce more saliva.

Drink while eating

Take a sip of fluid with each bite of food. This ensures that moisture is mixed with the food. Use drinks to soften hard foods. Think of dipping a biscuit in tea or milk and bread in soup or broth.

Be generous with gravy and sauces

Add extra gravy, sauce, cream, crème fraîche, mayonnaise, or butter to your meal. This helps to make the meal softer and easier to eat. Extra sauce can help make pasta dishes more pleasant with a dry mouth.

Choose soft, creamy food

You can replace bread with different types of porridge, custard, yoghurt, cottage cheese or a liquid breakfast. You can also opt for breakfast items such as cornflakes with yoghurt or milk. Eat bread without the crust or without toasting it. Opt for creamy spreads such as cheese spread, pate or cream cheese.

When you eat soup, make sure it is packed with a variety of food groups, in particular proteins (i.e., fish, meat, chicken, or pulses), so that you get enough nutrients. Clear broth can add moisture, but it does not contain enough nutrients for a full meal.

Note: if you have been advised by your dietitian to eat or drink more often to maintain or improve your nutritional status, you might have an increased risk of dental decay. You can help this by using additional fluoride or rinsing with a fluoride-containing mouthwash, or saline. You can get advice from a dental hygienist about this.

Get more advice on mouth issues during cancer treatment

> Nutritional tips for thickened secretions forming in mouth and throat during cancer treatment

> Nutritional tips for a soft textured diet during cancer treatment

> Nutritional tips for a sore mouth

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