Thickened Saliva

Author: Courtney Misher, MPH, BS R.T.(T)
Last Reviewed: October 27, 2023

What is thickened saliva?

Saliva, also called spit, is made by your salivary glands. These glands can be harmed if you are getting radiation to your head and neck and/or getting chemotherapy. This harm can cause you to have thick, stringy, sticky, spit. Thickened spit can make talking, swallowing, eating, and sometimes breathing, harder than normal. In some cases, your salivary glands heal quickly, but sometimes they do not. In some cases, thickened saliva is a long-term side effect. Harm to the salivary glands can also cause less spit or dry mouth.

What can you do about thickened saliva?

There is no cure for thickened saliva. Thickened saliva can change how you swallow and can make swallowing safely a challenge. Changes in your swallowing can cause aspiration. Aspiration is when what you are swallowing “goes down the wrong way” and goes into your lungs instead of your stomach. This can put you at risk for issues like pneumonia. Your team may suggest you see a speech language pathologist (SLP). An SLP can do tests to see how you are swallowing and give you ways to swallow safely.

If you are safely swallowing, there are some tips to help manage thickened saliva.

  • Drink plenty of fluids to thin your saliva. Ice chips can also be used.
  • Eat soft or liquid food such as cottage cheese, yogurt, sauce, and gravy.
  • Use a cool or warm mist humidifier, but make sure that you keep the humidifier clean.
  • Sleep with the head of your bed raised. This will keep the thick spit from pooling at the back of your throat.
  • Shower with water warm enough to make steam, this will help thin your spit.
  • Gargling and/or drinking carbonated drinks.
  • Practice good mouth care along with rinses with salt or baking soda.
  • Avoid alcohol and tobacco.
  • Medications can be used that decrease or thin spit. Ask your care team before you take a new medication or supplement.

Thickened saliva can be hard to handle and may change your daily life. You should talk with your care team about the best plan for you.

Dysphagia Section, Oral Care Study Group, Multinational Association of Supportive Care in Cancer (MASCC)/International Society of Oral Oncology (ISOO), Raber-Durlacher, J. E., Brennan, M. T., Verdonck-de Leeuw, I. M., Gibson, R. J., Eilers, J. G., Waltimo, T., Bots, C. P., Michelet, M., Sollecito, T. P., Rouleau, T. S., Sewnaik, A., Bensadoun, R. J., Fliedner, M. C., Silverman, S., Jr, & Spijkervet, F. K. (2012). Swallowing dysfunction in cancer patients. Supportive care in cancer : official journal of the Multinational Association of Supportive Care in Cancer, 20(3), 433–443.

Epstein, J. B., Thariat, J., Bensadoun, R. J., Barasch, A., Murphy, B. A., Kolnick, L., Popplewell, L., & Maghami, E. (2012). Oral complications of cancer and cancer therapy: from cancer treatment to survivorship. CA: a cancer journal for clinicians, 62(6), 400–422.

Mouth dryness or thick saliva: Cancer-related side effects. The American Cancer Society. (2020, February 1).

Head and neck cancer - types of treatment. Cancer.Net. (2022, September).

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