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Head and Neck Radiation and how it affects dental health

Dental Care After Head & Neck Radiation Therapy

Radiation to the head and neck area comes with a few side effects. One of the most critical ones are the temporary and permanent changes that occur in the mouth.

Temporary Changes

Temporary changes that occur after treatment disappear a few weeks after radiation is complete. These changes may cause some discomfort and make it difficult to eat and swallow. These include mouth or throat ulcers, sore mouth and throat, painful gums and tongue. Another side effect is taste changes or ageusia, which means no taste at all.

To improve these symptoms, eat only foods that soothe and relieve your mouth.

What to Do:

1. Eat foods that are soft, liquid and blended.

a. Soups

b. Jello

c. Pudding

d. Milk shakes

e. Cooked cereal

2. Eat foods that are cold or at room temperature.

3. Eat smaller bites and chew slowly. Always have liquid (preferably water) on hand to sip on.

What to Avoid:

1. Crunchy foods that may cut your mouth

a. Chips

b. Popcorn

c. Granola bars

d. Nuts

e. Dry cereal

2. Hot foods or liquids

3. Spicy, salty, or acidic foods. Including mint and cinnamon flavored gums

4. Alcohol, caffeine and citrus juices

Permanent Changes

Permanent changes that occur due to head and neck radiation therapy do not disappear after treatment and patients have to take extra steps daily to make sure they lessen the symptoms and prevent further problems in the future.

One of the main permanent changes is dry mouth. Also known as xerostomia. Radiation causes a decrease in amount of saliva the salivary glands produce. With less saliva protecting the teeth and removing bacteria from the mouth, cavities are more likely to occur.

To improve dry mouth and prevent cavities, always have a water bottle on hand and chew gum to stimulate salivary flow. Also, practicing daily oral care is very important:

· Always have clean hands prior to starting your oral hygiene routine

· Floss before you brush

· Brush after each meal and before bed

· Use a soft toothbrush

· Use a fluoride toothpaste and mouthwash

Jawbones are also affected due to the radiation reducing the blood circulation, which decreases the ability to heal wounds. Always inform the dentist that you’ve had radiation therapy prior to treatment to prevent complications.

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