Thickened Saliva

Author: OncoLink Team
Last Reviewed:

What is thickened saliva?

The salivary glands make spit. These glands can be harmed by chemotherapy and/or radiation. This harm can cause you to have thick, stringy, sticky, spit. Spit is another name for saliva. Thickened spit can make talking, swallowing, eating, and sometimes breathing, harder than normal. In some cases the 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. If thickened saliva is changing how you swallow, you may be aspirating. Aspiration is when what you are swallowing goes into your lungs rather than your stomach. This can put you are risk for issues such as pneumonia. In this case, your care team can send you to a therapist. This person will do tests to see if you are swallowing safely.  

If you are safely swallowing, there are some choices to help with thickened saliva. You should check with your care team about the best plan for you.

  • Drink plenty of fluids to thin the saliva.
  • Wet foods with liquids such as broth, yogurt, sauce and gravy.
  • A cool or warm mist humidifier can be used but you want to 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.
  • Showering with water warm enough to make steam will thin the spit.
  • Gargling and/or drinking carbonated drinks.
  • Frequent mouth care along with rinses with salt or baking soda.
  • Medications can be used that decrease or thin spit. Ask your care team before you take a new drug. 

Thickened spit can be hard to handle and may change your daily life. Speak to your care team to make a plan to handle this.

References

American Cancer Society. Dry mouth and thick saliva. 2019. Found at: https://www.cancer.org/treatment/survivorship-during-and-after-treatment/staying-active/nutrition/nutrition-during-treatment/dry-mouth-thick-saliva.html

Cancer.net. Head and Neck Cancer. Treatment Options. 2018. Found at: https://www.cancer.net/cancer-types/head-and-neck-cancer/treatment-options

Verdonck-de Leeuw et al. Swallowing dysfunction in cancer patients. Supportive Care in Cancer. 2012. 20(3): 433-443.

Epstein, JB et al. Oral complications of cancer therapy from cancer treatment to survivorship. CA: A Cancer Journal for Clinicians. 2012. 62(6).

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