How to Eat Well Despite Having a Dry Mouth

A dry mouth (xerostomia) can be a frustrating side effect of cancer care. However, it's important to remember that dry mouth isn't just about how you feel. The discomfort of dry mouth can actually cause you to alter your eating habits, which can affect your nutrition. By easing this adverse effect, and making some smart moves when eating, you can still get the nutrition you need.

Woman drinking water
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Easing Dry Mouth

First off, eating is a lot easier when dry mouth is minimized.

  • If a dry mouth is preventing you from eating well, ​tell your doctor or nurse. There are some medications that help manage a dry mouth, but your doctor can't prescribe them if she doesn't know you're struggling.
  • Ask your nurse for a mouth care plan, such as when and how often to brush your teeth, whether you should use any special solutions for rinsing your mouth, and other steps you can take to keep your mouth healthy and prevent further dryness.
  • Ask your pharmacist about gums, saliva substitutes, mouth moisturizers and other products made especially for a dry mouth, but avoid commercial mouthwashes that contain alcohol, which can dry the mouth further.

Smart Moves to Make When Eating

  • If it's hard to eat solid food, drink plenty of fluids that provide calories, such as juices, smoothies, milk, and shakes. These fluids can help you get good nutrition without having to chew and swallow food. (Refrain from drinking caffeinated beverages, which can contribute to dehydration.)
  • If solid food is something you can tolerate, take small bites, and chew slowly and completely.
  • Think soft and moist: Try canned fruit, yogurt, custard, or pudding.
  • Think cool: Eat soft-cooked chicken and fish that is room temperature; try thinned cereals (such as oatmeal made with plenty of water or milk) that's been left to cool down; go for lukewarm (not scalding hot) soups and stews.
  • Add broth, sauces, or gravy to foods such as casseroles, potatoes, and meat to soften them.
  • Use a little olive, canola, avocado or almond oil; yogurt; juice; jelly, or jam to make foods slippery and easier to swallow.
  • Try sucking on frozen fruit, such as frozen grapes, wedges of cantaloupe, peach slices, and watermelon. The chill will be soothing, and you'll get loads of nutrients. Be careful not to chew frozen fruit or ice chips, because this can damage your teeth.

When to Call Your Doctor

Sometimes, a dry mouth can become very serious, leading to infections and other problems.

Call your doctor if any of the following apply to you:

  • Your lips are dry, cracked, or bleeding
  • You have mouth sores that are preventing you from eating or that won't heal
  • You are having difficulty breathing due to a dry mouth or throat
  • You notice white patches in your mouth, which can signal an infection that requires medication
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Article Sources
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  1. American Cancer Society. Mouth Dryness or Thick Saliva. Updated July 29, 2019.

Additional Reading
  • Oncology Nutrition Dietetic Practice Group. The Clinical Guide to Oncology Nutrition, Second Edition, 2006. (Elliott L, Molseed LL, McCallum PD, Grant B, Eds.). American Dietetic Association: Chicago, IL.
  • The American Cancer Society. Dry Mouth or Thick Saliva