Dealing With Dry Mouth During Radiation Therapy

10 Simple Ways to Treat a Symptom of Cancer Treatment

Xerostomia, also known as dry mouth, is caused when the salivary glands do not produce enough saliva to keep the mouth moist. It is a side effect commonly associated with radiation therapy in people undergoing cancer treatment.

Woman drinking water on a couch
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Radiation therapy to the head and neck can directly damage the salivary glands as well as the mouth, throat, and lips. Symptoms can range from mild to debilitating and include:

  • a dry, sticky feeling in the mouth
  • saliva that is thick or stringy
  • a painful, burning sensation in the mouth or tongue
  • difficulty chewing or swallowing
  • change in taste
  • difficulty talking

In addition to the physical discomfort, dry mouth can interfere with both your dental health and ability to eat (leading to infection and/or malnutrition).

Fortunately, most people with dry mouth will regain salivary function in the weeks following radiation therapy, although it can sometimes take months.

Before Starting Treatment

Before radiation therapy begins, make an appointment with your dentist to get a thorough cleaning and check-up. Let your dentist know that you’re undergoing cancer treatment and ask that he or she check for any sores or infections that might work. If you have any pain or sensitivity during the examination, let your dentist know.

It is important to start practicing good dental hygiene if you haven’t done so already. Gently brush your teeth, gums, and tongue after eating and before you go to bed, flossing carefully as not to cause any cuts or abrasions. If you choose, you can rinse with a solution of warm water, baking soda, and salt.

And, most importantly, always use a soft toothbrush and never over brush.

10 Tips for Dealing With Dry Mouth During Radiation Therapy

While dry mouth may not be entirely avoidable during radiation treatment, there are 10 simple things that may alleviate symptoms:

  • Stay well hydrated by carrying water with you at all times, sipping frequently.
  • Choose foods that are soft and easy to swallow. Make milkshakes or blended food if you have difficulty swallowing.
  • Chew sugarless gum to encourage saliva production. Avoid gum with sugar as the lack of saliva may increase the risk of cavities.
  • Use numbing sprays to make eating less painful. Ask your healthcare provider about suitable over-the-counter products.
  • Avoid foods that are crunchy, salty, spicy, or sugary.
  • Avoid caffeine and alcohol as they can act as a diuretics, promoting urination and leading to dehydration.
  • Do not smoke or use tobacco products (including chewing tobacco).
  • If you experience any changes in taste, try cold foods or iced smoothies which are often more palatable and easy to eat.
  • Try sipping through a straw if drinking from a cup becomes difficult.
  • Use a humidifier in your home and especially in your bedroom.

Your dentist will want you to maintain regular visits during radiation therapy in order to check for any changes that may be developing as a result of the treatment.

Your healthcare provider may be able to recommend over-the-counter products like mouthwashes, toothpaste, and oral sprays to assist with saliva production and reduce the risk of bacterial or other types of oral infection. There are also prescription drugs that can help, including Evoxac (cevimeline) and Salagen (pilocarpine), the latter of which is specifically used to treat dry mouth caused by radiation treatment.

5 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Pinna R, Campus G, Cumbo E, Mura I, Milia E. Xerostomia induced by radiotherapy: an overview of the physiopathology, clinical evidence, and management of the oral damage. Ther Clin Risk Manag. 2015;11:171-88. doi:10.2147/TCRM.S70652

  2. Dry Mouth. MedlinePlus. Oct 25, 2017.

  3. Oral Complications of Cancer Treatment: What the Dental Team Can Do. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Sept 2009.

  4. Dry mouth during cancer treatment: MedlinePlus Medical Encyclopedia. MedlinePlus. Nov 6, 2019.

  5. Brimhall J, Jhaveri MA, Yepes JF. Efficacy of cevimeline vs. pilocarpine in the secretion of saliva: a pilot study. Spec Care Dentist. 2013;33(3):123-7. doi:10.1111/scd.12010

Additional Reading
  • Pinna, R.; Campus, G.; Cumbo, E.; et al "Xerostomia induced by radiotherapy: an overview of the physiopathology, clinical evidence, and management of the oral damage." Therapeutics and Clinical Risk Management. 2015; 11: 171–188.

By Lisa Fayed
Lisa Fayed is a freelance medical writer, cancer educator and patient advocate.