Dry mouth, called xerostomia, may be caused by radiation therapy given to the head and neck area. Patients receiving radiation to the head and neck may experience a change in the production and quality of saliva in the major and minor salivary glands. During radiation therapy treatment, saliva production actually increases, due to irritation caused by the radiation or chemotherapy (if administered). During treatment, the saliva tends to be thicker, often described by patients as "ropey" and difficult to mobilize. After treatment, the excessive saliva dissipates and the mouth becomes dry. This can be a temporary side effect, resolving completely or partially over the year after treatment, or result in a permanent loss of saliva production.
Dry mouth may affect speech, taste sensation, ability to swallow, and the use of dentures. Patients may report a sore or burning sensation, cracked lips, and fissures in the corners of the lips. Normal saliva contains enzymes that protect the teeth and gums from bacteria, keeping them healthy. In turn, there is an increased risk of developing cavities, periodontal disease and ultimately, tooth loss due to less saliva.
The extent of dry mouth is dependent upon the radiation technique used, the dose of radiation received by the salivary glands and the percentage of the salivary gland that receives radiation. Advanced radiation techniques are aimed at preventing or reducing the extent and permanence of xerostomia. With these techniques, the salivary gland on the side opposite of the cancer receives a lower dose of radiation; therefore loss of salivary function may be less and recover sooner following the completion of treatment.
If you have developed xerostomia, there are management strategies that can help you effectively deal with your dry mouth and prevent cavities and periodontal disease. Try to follow these simple guidelines:
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