Life After Cancer: Oral Health Problems

By Wheeler, Brooke 
March 21, 2017

Life After Cancer: Oral Health Problems 

Cancer treatment often causes mouth problems, or affects your oral health. It can cause problems such as sores, pain, infection, saliva changes, and dry mouth. Chemotherapy can cause problems in the mouth, no matter what kind of cancer it’s used to treat. Radiation treatment to the head and neck cancers can cause problems, too. Some of these problems get better after treatment, but some can last for a long time after treatment is over.                                                                                                                                             

Oral problems that can happen after cancer 

After cancer treatment, you may have some of these problems:

  • Sore, red, and inflamed areas inside the mouth (oral mucositis)

  • Infection from viruses, bacteria, or fungi

  • Salivary glands that don’t make enough saliva

  • Thick, sticky saliva

  • Dry mouth

  • Pain when chewing, speaking, or swallowing

  • Changes in the way foods taste and smells

  • Trouble with very hot foods, cold foods, or both

  • Cavities, tooth loss, or both

  • Stiff jaw muscles

  • Death of bone in the jaw (osteonecrosis)

  • Nerve pain that feels like a toothache

  • Bleeding

  • Thinned tooth enamel from vomiting

  • Chronic sores, blisters, and white patches from bone marrow transplant (oral chronic graft-versus-host disease) 

When you see your dentist 

Make sure to tell all your dental healthcare providers about your cancer treatment. They will make sure to be careful around any problems in your mouth. They can also look for signs of new problems. Get their help to manage any problems you have. 

Tell them if you had chemotherapy, radiation, or a bone marrow transplant. It may help to bring your medical information to your appointments. Each kind of treatment can cause different problems. For example, radiation treatment can cause dry mouth, cavities, and death of bone. This may cause even more problems if you have to have oral surgery or teeth removed. You have trouble wearing dentures after radiation treatment in your head or neck. 

Taking care of your mouth and teeth after cancer 

To help keep your mouth and teeth healthy, make sure to:

  • Gently brush your teeth twice a day with a soft toothbrush.

  • Gently floss between teeth. Avoid areas that are painful or bleeding. Check with your cancer doctor to be sure it’s safe for you to floss.

  • Use a daily fluoride gel if your dentist prescribes it.

  • Don’t use mouthwash that has alcohol in it.

  • Don’t smoke or chew tobacco.

  • Use a mouth-moistening rinse or spray to help keep your mouth moist.

  • Chew sugar-free gum or suck on sugar-free candy or lozenges.

  • Gently open and close your mouth 20 times, 3 times a day to prevent stiff jaw muscles. Your dentist can teach you exercises that will help with pain and stiffness. 

Eating and drinking 

If you have pain or damage to your mouth or teeth, or a high risk for cavities:

  • Eat soft foods, or foods moistened with sauce or liquid to make swallowing easier.

  • Take small bites and chew slowly.

  • Don’t eat salty, spicy, or acidic foods.

  • Don’t eat sharp, sticky, or rough foods.

  • Avoid sugary foods, drinks, and gum or candy that has sugar.

  • Don’t drink alcohol. 

Working with your dentist 

After cancer treatment, you may have a high risk for cavities for the rest of your life. Talk with your cancer doctor and your dentist to find out what you should do to take care of your mouth. Make sure to see your dentist often. Tell him or her about any new problems so they can be treated right away.


March 21, 2017


Oral health in cancer survivors. UpToDate.

Reviewed By:  

Cunningham, Louise, RN,Stump-Sutliff, Kim, RN, MSN, AOCNS