Foods to Avoid If You Have Dry Mouth From Radiation Therapy

Dry mouth (xerostomia) is a common side effect of radiation therapy for people undergoing treatment for head and neck cancer. It is caused by damage to the salivary glands when they are exposed to the direct effects of radiation.

Open package of crackers on a wooden table
Diana Rattray

When a person has a treatment-related dry mouth, eating can be tricky. It is often extremely difficult to chew or swallow with little or no saliva to help break down the food. Mouth sores and infections can frequently develop, while even talking can be a struggle for some.

Knowing what foods to avoid can help you minimize these symptoms while maintaining good daily nutrition and oral health. 

Below are the top seven kinds of foods to avoid if you have treatment-related dry mouth.

Dry Foods

Crusty bread can be tough to chew and swallow, even when used for sandwiches. It is best to forego the artisan sourdoughs and crunchy banquettes for softer varieties like hamburger rolls and traditional sliced bread. You can also try dipping bread into sauces or gravies to make it easier to eat.

Sharp edges on crackers and tortilla chips can often make things worse by cutting the delicate tissue of your inner cheek. You can remedy this, at least in part, by dipping crackers and chips in sauces. If that doesn't work, you can soften crackers by dipping them in milk or, better yet, switching to less crunchy foods.

Acidic Foods

Foods with acidic ingredients like lemon and vinegar can irritate the inside of the mouth, especially if you have sores. Avoid salad dressings with high vinegar content.

Choose low-acid fruits and juices like apple juice or bananas instead. Low-fat sour cream with seasonings can serve as a tasty alternative to vinegar-based dressings.

Salty Foods

Like acidic foods, salty foods can irritate your mouth. Low-sodium salt and reduced-sodium foods are the perfect ways to alleviate eating pains and reduce your sodium intake.

When in doubt, compare food labels to see which product has less added salt.

Spicy Foods

Spicy foods can be incredibly irritating without saliva to protect the lining of your mouth. If you insist on indulging in a spicy meal, choose milder things like sweet roasted peppers.

Sugary Foods and Drinks

One of the purposes that saliva serves is to break down sugars in food. People suffering from dry mouth are at an increased risk of tooth decay and other oral infections due to lower saliva production.

Always make a point of avoiding foods and drinks that are either high in sugar or have added sugar. Instead, choose water, flavored water, sugar-free drinks, and sugar-free desserts.

Tough Cuts of Meats

Meats can be incredibly challenging for dry mouth sufferers, particularly if you're a steak and potatoes person.

The best rule is to buy softer, less sinewy meats like beef filet or pork fillet. Slow stewing meats such as short ribs, shank, or pot roast can also give you the red meat fix you need while allowing easier chewing and swallowing, mainly when there is sauce or gravy. 

Caffeinated Drinks

It's essential to stay hydrated during cancer therapy, especially if you have a dry mouth. Staying hydrated can help relieve this symptom a little bit.

It's best to avoid caffeinated drinks. If you must drink them, it's best to limit them to one to two cups daily since these can worsen dry mouth.

Summary

Dry mouth from radiation for head and neck cancers is a common side effect, but it can also be annoying. It can make eating challenging since certain foods may be harder to eat or cause pain or discomfort because of how dry the mouth is.

Knowing what foods are more challenging than others can help you minimize your consumption of them or develop workarounds to help you eat them with less discomfort.

A Word From Verywell

Chronic dry mouth can be frustrating for people undergoing radiation treatment, turning what should be a daily pleasure into an ongoing struggle.

It's important to remember that it's a condition that can be managed. In addition to changing food habits, several pharmaceutical and over-the-counter remedies are available to help, including saliva stimulants and saliva substitutes. Some patients find additional relief by propping their heads higher while sleeping or learning to breathe through their noses instead of their mouths. 

Speak with your healthcare provider about what's right for you. Ultimately, it's not just about retaining the joy of eating; it's about maintaining the nutrition you need to support your recovery from cancer. 

Frequently Asked Questions

  • What foods help with dry mouth?

    Soft and moist foods can help with dry mouth, like puddings, mashed potatoes, and meal replacement drinks. Sipping on liquids throughout the day can help not only with dry mouth, but overall hydration as well.

  • Does magic mouthwash help with dry mouth?

    It may not help with the dry mouth itself, but if you have sores or irritation of oral tissues from radiation, it can help ease the pain of those. It does have a coating agent that may provide some short-term relief, but the main goal of the mouthwash is to address the pain from the sores or inflammation.

3 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. NIH National Cancer Institute. Mouth and throat problems during cancer treatment.

  2. MD Anderson Cancer Center. Nutrition during radiation therapy treatment: What patients should know.

  3. Cleveland Clinic. Dry mouth treatments.

Originally written by Lisa Fayed