Side Effects from Head and Neck Treatments

Treatment of the head and neck area can cause its own set of side effects. For instance, radiation may lead to a decrease in the amount of saliva in your mouth and to changes in the way foods taste. Good mouth care helps keep your mouth healthy, so you can talk and eat.
 
Special care for the mouth
If you are receiving radiation therapy, it is important to take good care of your mouth. Keeping your mouth clean will help you feel more comfortable and help you to eat.
 
A decrease in the amount of saliva may lead to dental cavities. For this you may be referred to a qualified dentist before you begin your radiation treatments. Your dentist will take care of all dental treatments.
 
Routine mouth care
  • Regular mouth care includes checking, cleaning, and moisturizing your mouth.
  • Check your mouth at least twice a day. Use a light and a mirror to check all areas. Remove dentures, if you wear them. Tell your nurse or doctor if you have mouth pain, sores, and patches in your mouth, or if you cannot eat.
  • Clean your teeth with a soft nylon toothbrush thirty minutes after eating, at bedtime, and when you want to clean your teeth or mouth. Brush gently. Use floss, if it does not hurt.
  • Rinse your mouth before and after meals. Use a mouthwash made with salt, baking soda and water (mix 1 quart of warm water with 1 teaspoon each of salt and baking soda.
  • Check with your doctor or dentist for other recommendations.
  • Don't use commercial mouthwashes that contain alcohol. (e.g. Listerine or Scope).
  • Have your dentist show you how to use a discoloring solution or tablet made of harmless red vegetable day which will reveal, by a red color, any plaque you failed to remove in brushing and flossing.
  • Apply moisture such as petroleum jelly or lipstick frequently to keep your lips moist. Do not lick your lips as this will just make them drier.
  • If you wear dentures, remove them and brush them after meals. Rinse your mouth and gently brush you gums. Do not wear loose fitting dentures. Instead, ask your dentist to realign them.
  • See your dentist regularly. Do not have dental work without checking with your doctor or nurse.
Tell your radiation oncologist or nurse if you:
  • Develop sores in your mouth, gums or on your tongue,
  • Have mouth pain,
  • Find white or yellow patches in our mouth, or
  • Have problems eating, drinking or swallowing.
 
Difficulty chewing or swallowing
Your radiation oncologist or nurse will discuss any possible side effects before you begin treatment. The following are tips to help you cope if you have a sore throat or have trouble chewing or swallowing. 
  • Try a soft, bland diet and cook solid foods until they are soft and tender. In addition, you might want to put foods in a blender or food processor.
  • Try to eat frequent, small meals, served cold or at room temperature.
  • Try to include applesauce, cold liquids, cooked cereal, soft-cooked eggs, plain ice cream, gelatin, popsicles, milkshakes, mashed potatoes, pudding or sherbet in your diet.
  • Drink plenty of water and other fluids with meals and between meals.
  • Avoid spices such as pepper, chili powder, nutmeg, cloves.
  • Avoid irritating substances such as cigarettes or alcohol, citrus juices and carbonated beverages.
  • Avoid rough or coarse foods such as raw vegetables, whole grain cereals, crackers and nuts.
  • Cut foods into bite-sized pieces and moisten them with gravy, salad dressing, sour cream, yogurt, or mayonnaise.
  • Soak foods in milk, cocoa or warm drinks.
  • Use liquid high-protein diet supplements and thicken it with ice cream if necessary, to ensure that you are getting enough protein and calories.
 
Dry mouth
Radiation to the area around the salivary glands may cause them to produce less saliva. These tips may help, if you have a dry mouth.
  • Rinse your mouth often to remove debris, to stimulate your gums, or simply to moisten your mouth.
  • Suck on ice cubes or ice chips.
  • Use wet gauze sponges frequently to stimulate your gums, or to wet your mouth.
  • Do not use commercial mouthwashes because they contain alcohol, which has a drying effect on the tissues lining the mouth. Use a mouthwash made with salt, baking soda and water (mix 1 quart of warm water with 1 teaspoon each of sale and baking soda).
  • Ask your radiation oncologist or dentist about a fluoride mouthwash or artificial saliva.
 
Changes in taste
You may notice a temporary loss of taste or a change in the way foods taste. Foods may taste bitter or sour. You may find you dislike eggs, fish, fried foods, meat, poultry or tomatoes and tomato products. Some people with this problem prefer bland cheeses, cottage cheese, fresh fruits, gelatin, salads, ice cream, lettuce or peanut butter.
 
After treatment precautions
After therapy, dental visits are mandatory on a routine basis as determined by your dentist. If extractions of teeth or gum surgery are required after radiation therapy, you should have your dentist check with your radiation oncologist prior to these procedures. Antibiotics will need to be prescribed if extractions are necessary.

 

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