Taste, Chew, Swallow, Speak (Part 1)

Amy Thomas Health Guide
  • Dealing with dry mouth during cancer treatment

    Mouth watering is a term used since the late 18th century to describe salivation at the thought, sight, or smell of food-for good reason. Our body produces saliva when we prepare to eat, making it easier to chew and swallow and initiating the process of digestion. Salivation also influences the taste of food and protects us against cavities and gum disease. It's a function that typically goes unnoticed until it is impaired, but the loss of salivation can be quite uncomfortable and even dangerous for patients undergoing treatment for cancer.


    Dry mouth, or xerostomia (pronounced zer-o-ster-mia), can occur as a result of radiation therapy to the head, neck, or mouth when treatment damages the salivary glands and less saliva is produced. Dry mouth is also a common complication of numerous chemotherapeutic agents. Treatment can include medications to stimulate the salivary glands, such as nicotinic acid or pilocarpine (Salagen), or artificial saliva products in the form of gels, pastilles, sprays, or tablets. In addition, there are a number of dietary modifications and mouth care practices to curb dry mouth and thick saliva.

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    Fluid can help thin and loosen mucus, so drink the recommended 8 to 12 cups of caffeine-free liquids daily.



    Papain, the enzyme in saliva, may help thin oral secretion. Sipping 100% pure papaya juice and gargling water with a small amount of Adolf's Meat Tenderizer, which contains papain, are reported to improve dry mouth.



    Use milk, broths, sauces, gravies, and soups to improve taste and the ability to swallow. You may also try substituting olive, canola, avocado, or almond oils for butter or margarine to make foods slippery so they can pass to the stomach without difficulty.



    Choose foods with high water content: popsicles, shakes, smoothies, slushies, watermelon, peaches, nectarines, soups, stews, and casseroles made with soup. You can try sucking on frozen fruit like grapes, peach slices, and watermelon, or even try sucking on ice.



    Tart foods and beverages like lemonade, limes, grapefruit and oranges can help by stimulating salivary gland activity.



    Brush your teeth or dentures and rinse your mouth three to four times per day (after meals and before going to bed).

    Suck on sugar-free candy or ice, or chew sugar-free gum.

    Keep a water bottle nearby at all times to rinse and moisten your mouth.

    Take small bites when eating and chew your food completely to facilitate swallowing.


    Gargle club soda or water with baking soda or salt to dissolve mucus and to help keep your mouth clean.



    Avoid products that can worsen dry mouth, including alcoholic beverages or commercial mouthwashes containing alcohol; caffeine; tough meats; raw vegetables; chips; muffins; and cakes.

    Avoid food and drink containing a lot of sugar (soda, kool-aid, cakes, pies, donuts) because they promote tooth decay and cavities.


    No smoking! Smoking exacerbates dry mouth and promotes additional bacterial growth.


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    If you are experiencing dry mouth during cancer treatment, keep in mind that it will probably go away. Salivary glands often recover over time, even up to several months, although in a few cases the damage is permanent.


    Alert your doctor if you experience the following symptoms:

    • Severe dry mouth for more than 3 days
    • Dry, cracked, or bleeding lips
    • Mouth sores that impair eating or won't heal
    • White patches on your tongue or cheeks which may be a sign of infection
    • Difficulty breathing due to dry mouth or throat
    • Lightheadedness with standing

    - Dr. Amy Thomas

Published On: February 14, 2008