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Cancer Treatment and Oral Health

December 19th, 2013

While oral health is always an important part of your overall health, it is even more critical when undergoing treatment for cancer.  There are many treatments that will effect the teeth and gums and the chronic inflammation of gum disease can lead to major systemic problems.
Chemotherapy will depress the immune system response to any infection.  What might have been a low grade oral infection that the body was keeping in check, will now be allowed to become acute and potentially quite uncomfortable.  Additionally, if a tooth needs to be removed during this time, the healing can be quite slow, allowing for more infection potential.
Head and neck radiation is perhaps the biggest challenge to oral care.  Radiation to the teeth and jaws can cause teeth to become brittle and become very susceptible to decay.  In many cases, the decision needs to be made before treatment is started as to whether or not to keep all the teeth.  Extractions done after the radiation treatment never heal very well and may cause more infection risk.
Another common result of treatment is xerostomia or dry mouth.  The salivary glands are very sensitive to factors that destroy cells including chemotherapy and radiation.  The flow of saliva decreases and the protective  effects of the immunity factors in saliva as well as the ability of the watery saliva to dilute harmful acids is diminished or lost.
It’s important to step up preventive measures for the remaining teeth.  Artificial saliva rinses, sprays and gels can help relieve the discomfort of dry mouth.  Obviously, oral hygiene must be excellent.  Regular brushing and flossing are the cornerstone of prevention.  Your dental team might suggest additional fluoride in the form of a prescription toothpaste or brush on gel.  Fluoride will help harden the tooth surface and help it resist decay.  Your diet can have an impact as well.  It’s important to limit the frequency of carbohydrate intake so that bacteria in the mouth aren’t as active.  Of course, when you’re not feeling well, it becomes challenging to follow all the guidelines suggested.
Please remember to include your dentist in the plans for your treatment so that proper treatment planning can be carried out to keep your mouth healthy through the ordeal of cancer treatment.

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