Top Oral Care Tips from Head and Neck Cancer Patients

by Sheila M. Eldred Health Writer

Treatments for head and neck cancer, especially chemotherapy and radiation, can trigger changes in your mouth that will require extra care.

We went straight to those who know best — head and neck cancer survivors — to find out what works and what doesn’t.

Keep reading to get tips from Head and Neck Cancer Alliance (HNCA) ambassadors.

Woman buying soup.

Stockpile supplies before treatment

You may not feel like shopping after you start treatment, so head and neck cancer survivor and HNCA ambassador Stewart Lyman suggests making time in advance to gather a variety of things you may want to eat or drink after surgery, chemo, or radiation.

“I suggest a variety of items, since what you actually feel you can eat when the time comes varies from person to person,” Stewart says. “I stockpiled ice cream only to find out that cold items were bad [for me]. What I really wanted was hot broth. Others may have the opposite reaction.”

Mouth rinse.

Saliva substitutes for nighttime dry mouth

Dry mouth is a common issue during and after treatment. You may need to experiment to find what works best for you. Here’s what helped three survivors get through the night:

  • Head and neck cancer survivor and HNCA ambassador Steve Cassidy recommends XyliMelts tablets.
  • Gary Lazarz, head and neck cancer survivor and HNCA ambassador, swears by “biotene before bed.”
  • And Anthony White, patient/family advisor and HNCA ambassador, swishes a tiny bit (1/8 to 1/4 teaspoon) of coconut oil at bedtime, which also acts as an antimicrobial to ward off bacteria.
Stick of sugar free gum.

Try gum for daytime dry mouth relief

With only one parotid salivary gland, head and neck cancer survivor and HNCA ambassador Tom Bennett says sugar-free chewing gum is his go-to solution for dry mouth during the day.

Smiling dentist and patient shaking hands.

Befriend your dentist...

Within six months post-treatment, talk to your dentist about your cancer and treatment history.

“The ability to drop in for a quick cancer oral exam, fluoride treatment samples, or a prescription for an antibiotic for those canker sore breakouts is essential for long-term oral health,” Anthony says.


... And your toothbrush

Brushing your teeth may require extra care (consider switching to a soft brush) during treatment.

After treatment, your dentist will likely want you to increase your brushing habits, being extra sensitive to not cause gum recession. Gary suggests brushing every time you eat.

Head and neck cancer survivor and HNCA ambassador Steve Holzer was reminded that flossing isn’t just a dance: He began flossing his teeth daily during his seven weeks of radiation.

You can also try a water pick. “They become addictive, but in the good way,” Anthony says.

Man taking medicine.

Plan ahead with medications after cancer treatment

“Take your meds; don't just wait till you need them — because then it’s too late,” says Steve Cassidy, head and neck cancer survivor and HNCA ambassador. That applies to pain meds and anti-constipation meds, among others.

Senior woman sleeping a chair.

Rethink your bedtime habits

When the phlegm seems overwhelming, sleep sitting up — and keep a cup handy for spitting, Steve suggests.

Questions for doctor.

Take control of your care after cancer treatment

“Take control or be controlled,” says Hank Deneski, head and neck cancer survivor and HNCA ambassador. “Be your own advocate. Write down your list of concerns and questions to make sure you don’t forget anything. If the answer from the doctor or nurse is not clear, do not be afraid to ask them to repeat or rephrase the answer. Have someone accompany you to the appointment and have them take notes for you.”

Also, it’s great to research alternative therapies, but always check with your doctor to make sure they don’t interfere with other medication and treatments, he says.

Woman with mouth pain.

Don’t expect a quick fix for mouth issues

When you’re going through treatment, says head and neck cancer survivor and HNCA ambassador Paul Reitano, your oncologist and medical team will give you lots of instructions on what to rinse with and gargle with and other tips.

“You should follow all of it,” he says. “The best thing you can do post-treatment is take your oral care very seriously. But know that it’s still going to suck. There’s no quick fix to misery.”

Many people think side effects improve immediately after their last cancer treatment, but that’s actually when many are at their weakest. Don’t worry: Things will improve, just be prepared that it won’t be instantaneous (For Paul, improvements started a couple of months post-treatment.)

Doctor supporting female patient and her husband.

Beyond oral care after head and neck cancer

“Don’t be afraid to ask for help. See a counselor,” Steve advises. “Be nice to your support folks; it’s not their fault. Have a sense of humor.”

Sheila M. Eldred
Meet Our Writer
Sheila M. Eldred

Sheila Mulrooney Eldred is a graduate of Columbia’s School of Journalism and a former newspaper reporter. As a freelance health journalist, she writes about everything from life-threatening diseases to elite athletes. Her stories have appeared in The New York Times, Nature, FiveThirtyEight, Pacific Standard, STAT News, and other publications. In her spare time, she and her family love running, cross-country skiing, and mountain biking in Minneapolis.