Xerostomia After Radiation

Katrina Claghorn, MS, RD
Last Modified: November 1, 2001

Dear OncoLink "Ask the Experts,"
I completed radiation and chemo treatments for head and neck cancer almost 2 years ago. I am now 37 and lead a pretty active and normal life—except, that is, for food! Everything is so dry and difficult. Is there anything I can do?

Katrina Claghorn, MS, RD, registered dietitian at the Abramson Cancer Center of the University of Pennsylvania, responds:

Radiation and chemotherapy can sometimes cause permanent dry mouth or xerostomia. This makes eating very difficult since saliva functions not only to moisten foods, but is also important in conferring flavor. Consequently eating becomes more difficult and foods lack taste. Here are some general nutrition tips:

  • Drink water and fluids throughout the day. To calculate your fluid needs multiply your weight in pounds by 0.45 (e.g. 140 lb x 0.45 = 63 oz). Suck on ice chips and popsicles. Carry water or beverages with you in water bottles.
  • Add butter, margarine, mayonnaise, yogurt, sauces and gravies to moisten foods. Dunk breads and rolls in liquids such as soups.
  • Try tart foods and beverages such as lemonade, limes, grapefruit and oranges.
  • Sip beverages with each bite. Have a cup of soup and take a spoonful between bites of food.
  • Cut food into small pieces. Use long, slow cooking techniques such as braising or using a crock pot which produces moister meats that can be flaked.
  • Try sugar free candies and gum.
  • Avoid alcohol, tobacco, commercial mouthwashes and liquid vitamins and supplements that have an alcohol base.
  • Commercial artificial saliva products are available, however they may not be effective for long term use.
Oral hygiene is also essential. Refer to Oncolink's Dealing With a Dry Mouth for guidelines for maintaining good oral health.

Probably the best suggestions come from those who have experienced similar problems. Support groups for patients and survivors of head and neck cancers often have meetings that focus on nutrition issues.