Visit dentist before radiation therapy to prevent oral problems

More than one million Americans will be diagnosed with cancer each year, and about 40 percent will develop serious mouth problems as the result of head and neck radiation therapy and chemotherapy. Severe oral complications, such as the patient's inability to eat and drink, often force doctors to delay or stop the radiation treatment.

To give patients their best chance to fight cancer, the dentist must be added to the cancer treatment team and the patient must visit the dentist before beginning radiation therapy, according to a new report in the November/December 2003 issue of General Dentistry, the Academy of General Dentistry's (AGD) clinical, peer-reviewed journal.

The goal of head and neck radiation is to kill cancer cells while limiting damage to adjacent healthy tissue and structures like salivary glands, jawbones and tissues lining the mouth. However, damage to healthy tissue is unavoidable.

During treatment, the dentist can work with the patient to monitor any changes in their mouth that may occur, such as dry mouth, increased cavities and painful mouth sores.

"The less oral problems a patient experiences, the more likely the patient will stay on the treatment program," says Bruce Burton, DMD, MAGD, ABGD, AGD spokesperson.

"Schedule a visit with the dentist one month before starting radiation," advises Jody S. Harrison, DDS, lead report author. "Doing so may help prevent serious complications."

Oral complications from neck and head radiation

  • Dry mouth
  • Cavities
  • Oral yeast infections
  • Taste loss
  • Inflammation and ulceration of mouth lining
  • Non-healing wounds
  • Limited mouth opening
  • Nutritional deficiencies

Pretreatment strategies for cancer patients

  • Contact a general dentist for examination before therapy begins

Contact: Susan Urbanczyk
Academy of General Dentistry

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