Chemotherapy and Your Oral Health

woman in hospital

Cancer is one of the most common diseases worldwide. It affects about 18 million people worldwide, which is constantly growing. One way cancer is treated through chemotherapy. But what does chemotherapy do to your body?

What is Chemotherapy?

Chemotherapy is the use of drugs to treat cancer. The drugs work by killing cancer cells or stopping them from growing. Chemotherapy can be given in many different ways, including:

  • Intravenously (through a vein)
  • Oral pill
  • Injection
  • Topical cream

cancer patient

How Does Chemotherapy Work?

Chemotherapy works by attacking rapidly dividing cells. Cancer cells divide more quickly than most other cells in the body, so they are more likely to be affected by chemotherapy. Unfortunately, chemotherapy also attacks healthy cells that divide quickly, such as tone marrow, gastrointestinal tract, and hair follicles. This can lead to side effects like hair loss, nausea, and fatigue.

What Are the Side Effects of Chemotherapy?

The side effects of chemotherapy are dependent on the type and dose of the medication, as well as the patient’s overall health and other factors. Some common side effects of chemotherapy include:

  • Anemia
  • Constipation
  • Diarrhea
  • Fatigue
  • Hair loss
  • Mouth sores
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Neuropathy (nerve damage)
  • Skin changes

Not many people know this, but cancer also affects people’s oral health. Here are five ways that chemotherapy can have an impact on your mouth.

Dry mouth

One of the chemotherapy’s most common side effects is dry mouth, also called xerostomia. Your saliva helps protect your teeth from decay by washing away food and plaque, so a decreased saliva production can lead to an increased risk of tooth decay and infection. You can do a few things to help combat dry mouth: suck on sugar-free hard candy or chew sugar-free gum (but avoid gum with sorbitol if you have diarrhea), drink plenty of fluids (avoid sugary drinks), and use a humidifier at night. A dry mouth usually doesn’t need you to visit a dental professional unless you start experiencing symptoms such as increased cavities or mouth infections.

Sores in the mouth

Another common side effect of chemotherapy is the development of sores in the mouth, also called mucositis. These sores can make eating and talking painful and can increase your risk of developing an infection.

You can do a few things to help prevent or treat mucositis: brush your teeth with a soft-bristled toothbrush, use a gentle, alcohol-free mouthwash, avoid spicy or acidic foods, and suck on ice chips or popsicles. Much like dry mouth, you don’t need to see a dental professional unless you’re experiencing symptoms such as increased pain, bleeding, or infection.


Cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy treatments are more likely to develop infections due to weakened immune systems. Dental disease can be severe, so it’s essential to prevent it by brushing and flossing regularly, visiting your dentist or oral hygienist regularly, and avoiding sugary foods and drinks contribute to tooth decay. If you develop an infection, it’s important to seek dental treatment as soon as possible so it doesn’t spread and become more serious. You can know that you have an oral infection because of these symptoms: pain, redness, swelling, pus, or a bad taste in your mouth.

Tooth loss

Unfortunately, chemotherapy treatments can sometimes result in tooth loss because they kill both cancerous and healthy cells indiscriminately. However, you can do a few things to help prevent tooth loss: healthy oral habits, checkups, eating a healthy diet, and stopping your usage of tobacco products. If you’ve experienced severe tooth loss due to tooth loss, you can get a tooth replacement service to help you out. This service uses false teeth to fill in the gaps where you’ve lost your natural teeth. It’s a better option than using dentures or letting the gaps remain.

Difficulty swallowing

Difficulty swallowing, also called dysphagia, is another common side effect of chemotherapy. If you have difficulty swallowing, you may be at risk for developing pneumonia if liquids or food enter your lungs instead of going down your esophagus into your stomach. You can do a few things to help prevent dysphagia: eat small meals more often throughout the day instead of large meals, take smaller bites, chew your food thoroughly, and sit up straight while eating.

Chemotherapy is a challenging process that takes a toll on your whole body  including your oral health. Keep these five potential side effects in mind, and talk to your dentist or oral hygienist if you have any concerns. Taking good care of your teeth and mouth during chemotherapy treatments will make you one step ahead in the fight against cancer!

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