Coping With Dry Mouth During Cancer

Last Updated: September 21, 2022

Dry mouth, a common side effect of cancer and its treatment, can make daily activities like eating or talking difficult for people with cancer. In this video, Dr. Cristina P. Rodriguez discusses what people with cancer should know about dry mouth, including its causes, how the health care team can help manage it, and how to cope with dry mouth at home.

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Dry Mouth or Xerostomia

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Coping With Dry Mouth During Cancer

Voiceover: Dry mouth, also called xerostomia, happens when the body's salivary glands do not make enough saliva to keep the mouth moist. Saliva is needed for chewing, swallowing, tasting, and talking, and a dry mouth can make these activities difficult or uncomfortable.

Cristina P. Rodriguez, MD; Medical Oncologist; Member, American Society of Clinical Oncology: Saliva is produced by paired major salivary glands, the parotid, the sublingual, and submandibular glands, as well as minor salivary glands that are scattered throughout our upper air and digestive tract. A reduction in the amount of saliva production can result as a consequence of interventions due to cancer diagnosis or treatment. For instance, one cause is radiation to the head and neck area, or treatments such as radioactive iodine. Dry mouth can also result from medications that are used through cancer treatment, such as pain medication for instance, or from autoimmune conditions or pre-existing conditions that patients may have even before they're diagnosed with cancer.

Symptoms of Dry Mouth:
  • Sticky dry feeling in the mouth
  • Thick, stringy saliva
  • Pain or burning in the mouth or on the tongue
  • Cracks in the lips or at the corner of the mouth
  • Dry, tough tongue
  • Difficulty chewing, tasting, swallowing, or talking

Voiceover: The symptoms of dry mouth can include a sticky dry feeling in the mouth; thick, stringy saliva; pain or burning sensation in the mouth or on the tongue; cracks in the lips or at the corner of the mouth; a dry, tough tongue; and difficulty chewing, tasting, swallowing, or talking. Dry mouth can cause other complications and can have a significant impact on a person's quality of life if untreated. Talk with your cancer care team if you are experiencing dry mouth, and they can make recommendations to help you manage the symptoms.

Dr. Rodriguez: There are many things that a health care team can do to help with dry mouth, even before or during treatment. For instance, for patients with head and neck cancer who are about to undergo radiation therapy, our care team makes sure that they meet with a dentist. The dentist can talk to them about oral care, treat any teeth that need to be treated, and talk about prevention of tooth decay in the future, such as with fluoride trays. Many times, our patients meet with radiation doctors and talk about the various modalities of radiation therapy, many of which can spare salivary glands successfully. Additionally, we review patients' medications during treatment so that we can avoid medicines that might make dry mouth worse. There are many evidence-based interventions that have been studied in patients with dry mouth. Some of these include mouthwashes, or medications that stimulate saliva production. Other patients report that they are helped by artificial saliva sprays, lozenges, or chewing gum. Some studies also suggest that interventions like acupuncture, or TENS—transcutaneous electronic nerve simulation—might help relieve the symptoms of dry mouth.

Voiceover: There are also things you can do at home to help cope with dry mouth.

Dr. Rodriguez: One of the ways to cope with dry mouth at home is to first stay well-hydrated. It's good for our bodies in general, and it's good for dry mouth as well. Many patients will complain that their dry mouth gets worse at night or when they wake up in the morning. Many patients will say that having a humidifier in the room or having a glass of water nearby, near their bed, helps them.

Voiceover: Sometimes, eating or exercising can become more difficult when dealing with the symptoms of dry mouth. But there are ways to make these activities easier.

Dr. Rodriguez: Many patients find that they're inhibited in terms of eating because their mouth is dry. There's an entire world of options out there, foods that are easy to eat, even if you have less saliva. Many soups, stews, foods with a lot of sauces, soft foods and pastas, there's really no shortage of these options for patients who have dry mouth. Many patients will complain that their mouth is dry when they exercise. Nowadays there are many gadgets that will allow you to carry water and sip it while you're exercising.

Voiceover: For more information about coping with dry mouth while going through cancer treatment, please visit Cancer.Net.

Dr. Rodriguez: It can be very overwhelming to navigate the internet and find content that's reliable and not commercially motivated. Cancer.Net is a great resource for patients. You can find information there about dry mouth and other concerns or issues that face the cancer patient.

[Closing and Credits]

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