Patients undergoing radiation treatment orally can face unique challenges from patients being treated in other areas of the body. Here are some of the radiation side effects that may occur for people being treated for mouth or throat cancer.
Dry mouth: During the weeks of oral radiation treatment, one’s mouth may become very dry which can lead to difficulty eating, talking, and swallowing. It can also hasten tooth decay, so it’s important to restore moisture. Patients may find it helpful to drink lots of water, suck or chew ice chips or sugar-free hard candy, chew sugar free gum, and use a saliva substitute.
Throat and mouth pain: Another radiation side effect in the mouth can be painful ulcers, redness and inflammation. In this circumstance, doctors will often recommend medicines or special numbing oral rinses to help control the pain in the throat and mouth.
Painful or bleeding gums: The tissue in the mouth can become so sensitive that regular activities like brushing and using a toothpick can cause a great deal of pain and trauma to inflamed gums. SO it’s best to go extra gentle with the area. This can also lead to infection if lesions are left unchecked, so patients will want to stay aware of what’s happening in their mouths and let their health care practitioner know immediately if anything looks out of the ordinary.
Tooth decay: Radiation treatment can cause tooth decay in a big way, so it’s extra important to care for the teeth and gums meticulously while undergoing treatment. The recommendation from dentists for those who are in this scenario is to brush teeth, tongue and gums with an extra-soft toothbrush and fluoride toothpaste after every meal and before bed. Some dentists also recommend fluoride trays, and regular rinsing with a salt/baking soda/water mixture.
Infection: Dry mouth and damage to the lining of the mouth from radiation therapy can cause infection to develop. It helps to check your mouth every day for sores or other changes and to tell your doctor or nurse about any mouth problems.
Stiffness in jaw: Radiation side effects from oral treatment can include jaw problems because the radiation affects the muscles used for chewing. This can make it difficult to open one’s mouth. Sometimes the condition can be eased greatly by simply exercising those muscles by opening and closing the mouth as much as possible and holding each position for a while.
Denture problems: Treatment may create enough of a change inside one’s mouth that their dentures don’t fit right anymore. Also, it can be difficult to even wear them because of how dry and inflamed the mouth tissues can become.
Taste and smell differences: Food and odors may be perceived differently after treatment. Some of the changes may even be permanent for some people.
Vocal changes: If the radiation is directed towards the neck, the larynx may swell, resulting in changes to one’s voice as well as fatigue talking. Sometimes medicine is given for this to bring swelling down.
Thyroid changes: If a patient’s thyroid is affected, he or she may begin to feel tired, lethargic, cold, gain weight and have dry skin and hair. A doctor can prescribe thyroid hormone to help support the thyroid and reduce those symptoms.
Skin changes: Skin on the patient’s face and neck may be affected in a similar way to getting a sunburn. Skin may become red, dry and fragile. Patients may want to be careful about shaving or applying skin care products, as they may be irritating.
Fatigue: Fatigue is a common radiation side effect that affects most patients being treated with radiation therapy. It is the same with people undergoing oral treatment.
These are most of the side effects that people undergoing oral radiation therapy experience. It’s always important to have a detailed discussion with a healthcare practitioner before beginning any kind of treatment though, so that expectations, protocol and symptoms can be managed.