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Side EffectsOral Side Effects

Last updated: 03/14/2014

Oral | ResourcesResearch News

Oral Mucositis | Oral Thrush | Loss of Taste | Dry Mouth | Burning Mouth Syndrome 

Oral side effects that can result from cancer treatments include oral mucositis, oral thrush and loss of taste sensation or smell.

Oral health is important! In addition to being painful, a sore mouth can become easily infected. Every step should be taken to prevent infections, because they can be hard to fight during chemotherapy and can lead to serious problems or the interruption of your treatment.

Prevention: Talk you your doctor about seeing a dentist at least two weeks before chemotherapy begins. If you've already started chemotherapy and didn’t go to a dentist, see one as soon as possible, and notify him 
or her that you are receiving treatment. 

Tip: If brushing becomes too painful due to mouth sores, try a finger toothbrush. Meant for babies, they are very gentle yet are helpful in keeping the teeth and gums clean. They can be found in most drugstores and grocery stores. 

See Oral complications of cancer radiotherapy.
PMID: 834698  PubMed | Related abstracts

Oral Mucositis (Stomatitis) 

TOPIC SEARCH: Radiotherapy and: PubMed 
Cancer Treatment and Mucositis: PubMed

Oral mucositis is an inflammation of the mucous membranes in the mouth. It can range from redness to severe ulceration.  This is a side effect associated with many standard cancer treatments, particularly chemotherapy.  The consequences can range from mild to severe. 

Mucositis "occurs when cancer treatments break down the continually dividing epithelial cells lining the GI tract, particularly in the oral cavity, leaving the mucosal tissue open to ulceration and infection. It can occur anywhere along the digestive tract from the mouth to the anus."

Stomatitis (mouth and oropharynx), oesophagitis (oesophagus), gastritis (stomach), enteritis (small intestine), colitis (colon), proctitis (anus) and vaginitis (vagina) are all examples of mucositis.

Source: GONG Cancer Guidelines

Patients have reported that oral mucositis is a distressing side effect of standard-dose chemotherapy, occurring in approximately one third of patients. Source:  professional.cancerconsultants.com

Mucositis is painful and can affect nutrition, increase your risk of infection, and can delay or limit treatment. It can lead to major complications after or during cancer treatment.

Good oral hygiene practices are thought to reduce pain, bleeding, infection, and dental complications (Rubenstein et al 2004).

Potential complications include:

Infection, such as herpes simplex virus, candida albicans and other opportunistic agents


Bleeding from non-intact mucous membranes


Pain, secondary to lesions


Decreased dietary intake leading to dehydration and poor nutritional status


Diarrhea or constipation


The inability to talk comfortably may lead some patients
with severe oral mucositis to suffer from depression

Adapted from GONG Cancer Guidelines

Treatment for mucositis should be guided by your doctor.

In general, hydration should be maintained with oral fluid intake and regular care of mucous membranes, such as regular mouth care with a soft brush is recommended to reduce incidence of complications.

In the News

Clinical Oncology: Management of Oral Mucositis in Cancer Patients

Education on Preventive and Management Practices, and Related Services:


Related Services:


Dietician for dietary education


Medical Provider education on assessment, management and prevention of mucositis


Dentist for treatment of dental disease before commencement of treatment for cancer



Education on Preventive and Management Practices

Ask your health care provider:


How to assess and report changes in oral mucous membranes at home
including changes to vaginal and rectal mucous membranes


Mouth care regime:

Regular cleaning of teeth and gums with a soft toothbrush or swab as tolerated

Cleaning dentures daily and leaving out when at rest and whenever a mouthwash is used;

Gums and areas under a denture should be brushed on a regular basis

Your doctor might recommend rinsing mouth after all meals with
a warm salt water or sodium bicarbonate mouth rinse.

(Avoid mouthwashes containing irritants, such as alcohol, phenol or chlorhexidine).

Sucking on ice cubes may ease discomfort (check that water source is pure)



Avoid hot food and drinks, spicy food, alcohol and smoking



Lubricate lip and mouth as necessary



Discuss use of topical anesthetics and analgesics if necessary.



Discuss strategies to prevent risks associated with sexual activities

Avoid trauma to the genital areas such as the use of tampons,
suppositories, chemical irritants from deodorants, and
vaginal or anal intercourse until areas have recovered.


Discuss need to maintain good hygiene, including encouragement of bathing and cleaning
after each urination and bowel movements.


Discuss need to report bleeding from non-intact mucous membranes

Adapted from GONG Cancer Guidelines

Resources on Mucositis

GONG Cancer Guidelines (very clear and concise recommendations provided here)
Updated clinical practice guidelines for the prevention and treatment of mucositis. guidelines.gov
Cancer Treatment-Induced Mucositis Pain:
Strategies for Assessment and Management
Clinical practice guidelines for the prevention and treatment of cancer therapy–induced oral and gastrointestinal mucositis (Rubenstein et al 2004). http://bit.ly/pwVLVE 
Tips for Getting Through Therapy PAL
Advances in the Prevention and Management of Oral Mucositis  professional.cancerconsultants.com
Prevention and evidence-based best practices oralcancerfoundation.org  pdf 
About mucositis  cancerbacup.org.uk | cancersupportivecare.com  
Mucositis Assessment scale  symptomresearch.nih.gov
Mucosal damage: a major risk factor for severe complications after cytotoxic therapy.
Semin Oncol. 2004 Jun;31(3 Suppl 8):35-44. Review. PMID: 15181607
Preventing Mucositis - discussion of investigational use of 
Dehydroascorbic acid DHA  Medscape (free login req.) 
Management of oral mucositis during local radiation and systemic chemotherapy: 
a study of 98 patients.

J Prosthet Dent. 1991 Sep;66(3):361-9. PMID: 1800734  PubMed | Related abstracts
FDA Approves Kepivance for Severe Oral Mucositis in Cancer Patients 
Undergoing Bone Marrow Transplant; Pivotal Phase 3 Study Published in 
This Week's New England Journal of Medicine  cancerconsultants.com Dec 2004

Questions and Answers on Palifermin (Keratinocyte Growth Factor)  FDA.gov
The cancer patient with severe mucositis. Curr Rev Pain. 2000;4(3):197-202. Review.
PMID: 10998733  Abstract
Complementary Medicine:
Oral glutamine to alleviate radiation-induced oral mucositis: a pilot randomized trial. Int J Radiat Oncol Biol Phys. 2000 Feb 1;46(3):535-9. PMID: 10701731 abstract | related abstracts
Prospective evaluation of a chamomile mouthwash for prevention of 5-FU-induced oral mucositis. Cancer. 1996 Feb 1;77(3):522-5. PMID: 8630960  PubMed 

Oral Mucositis
WebMagic Patient Tips:


It is called magic mouthwash but to tell you the truth, I used frozen things like popsicles. I was advised to even start with ice chips during my treatment and continue with very cold things.


This is the recipe for "Magic Mouthwash" that the onc nurse gave me....
Equal parts of hydrogen peroxide and water, mixed together.
Swish around in mouth, DO NOT GARGLE OR SWALLOW.



I used CAPHOSOL®. It tasted almost like a salt water rinse. I found it worked longer than the magic mouthwash and didn't have any aftertastes which I was sensitive to at the time.


Much sympathy to your friend. I got nailed with sores pretty hard after the first round of chemo and the doctor gave me a life-time supply of CAPHOSOL®. It did help, and it had some cool geek cred because its two liquid components come in separate plastic ampules which have to be mixed.

It did not, however, represent a dramatic improvement over the saline/baking soda solution. I found that being really diligent about rinsing regularly, regardless of whether I felt any sores oncoming or not, was the best routine for me.

Oral Mucositis
Research News and Resources

Chlorhexidine prophylaxis for chemotherapy- and radiotherapy-induced stomatitis: 
a randomized double-blind trial. Oral Surg Oral Med Oral Pathol. 1990 Mar;69(3):331-8.
PMID: 2179802  PubMed
A controlled evaluation of chamomile for preventing stomatitis in patients receiving 5-fluorouracil based chemotherapy asco.org
Mayo Clinic on chemo mouth sores: what causes, which days are worst, how to help prevent, how to cope. http://bit.ly/78jiYn
Preventing / managing oral mucositis (resources) - common and serious side effect related to high dose therapy and stem cell transplantation  Abstract
A prospective, randomized study of cryotherapy ...

[ice chips and ice-cold water shortly before, during, and for additional 90 min after completion of treatment]  ... during administration of high-dose melphalan to decrease the severity and duration of oral mucositis in patients with multiple myeloma undergoing autologous peripheral blood stem cell transplantation. Bone Marrow Transplant. 2006 Jun;37(11):1031-5. PMID: 16633359

Compared to the normal saline group, patients using cryotherapy experienced less grade 3-4 mucositis, 14 vs 74%, P=0.0005. Patients receiving cryotherapy also had statistically 
lower uses of narcotics and TPN, although there were no differences in length of 
hospitalization or weight loss. Patient-reported pain was significantly lower and 
activities were significantly better in the cryotherapy group.

Oral thrush

Oral thrush presents as distinctive lesions of the mouth, tongue, or cheeks -- caused by infection of the mouth with the fungus (yeast) Candida albicans.. Lesions are easily brushed away revealing a reddened, tender area that may bleed slightly."  MedlinePlus 


Loss of taste sensation is called Ageusia.

Anosmia is the technical name for loss of smell.

These are expected side effect of localized radiation treatment, which can improve with time. These effects can have " devastating physical and psychological consequences for the patient. Oral complications include xerostomia, dental decay, mucositis, taste loss,  osteoradionecrosis, infection, and trismus. In many instances, these problems can be eradicated or controlled with appropriate treatment."  

"As the effects of the treatment fade away things return to normal, but it may take up to a year for your sense of taste to return." source cancerbacup.org.uk 

Consulting a nutritionally oriented health professional is advised to determine nutritional deficiencies that may contribute to the problem, as well as nutrients that might help to rebuild the cells damaged by treatment, such as  Zinc, and vitamin B-12, glutamine.

About oral thrush  CDC

  • Information from Merck Manual

    "Depending on the cause of the taste disorder, a doctor may recommend changing or stopping  a suspected drug, keeping the mouth wet by sucking on candy, or just waiting several weeks to see if the problem disappears. Zinc supplements, which can be purchased without a prescription, are claimed to speed recovery, especially from taste disorders that follow a bout of the flu. The effect, however, has not been scientifically confirmed."
  • Taste and smell impairment  CancerSupportiveCare  

    "The cells comprising taste buds usually  will regenerate within four months after treatment. However, the degree of long-term  impairment of taste is quite variable from patient to patient."
  • Impaired taste info   MedlinePlus 
    "Vitamin (Vitamin B-12) or mineral (Zinc in diet) deficiency"
  • Disorders of taste and smell  eMedicine.com

  • Burning Mouth Syndrome ( BMS)

    A burning pain in the tongue or oral mucous membranes, usually without accompanying clinical and laboratory findings. Candidal infections are also purported to cause burning mouth syndrome. About BMS  aafp.org

    Burning mouth syndrome (BMS): double blind controlled study of alpha-lipoic acid (thioctic acid) therapy.  J Oral Pathol Med. 2002 May;31(5):267-9. PMID: 12110042


    Dry Mouth (xerostomia)

    A reduction in the production and quality of saliva in the salivary glands is a known side effect of radiation therapy. 

    Try to follow these simple guidelines:


    Perform oral hygiene after each meal and before bedtime


    Rinse mouth immediately after meals


    Brush and rinse dentures after meals


    Use fluoride-based toothpaste


    Drink clean water to keep mouth moist at all times


    Ask your doctor about use of prescription fluoride gel at bedtime


    Rinse often with salt and baking soda solution


    Limit or avoid sugar-based liquids and foods


    Avoid alcohol-based rinses


    Use lip moisturizers


    Ask your doctor about Oral pilocarpine (Salagen) a drug that stimulates saliva secretion

    Adapted from thecancerblog.com 


    Acupuncture for pilocarpine-resistant xerostomia following radiotherapy 
    for head and neck malignancies. 
    Int J Radiat Oncol Biol Phys. 2001 Jun 1;50(2):353-7. PMID: 11380221 

    Acupuncture reduces xerostomia in some patients who are otherwise 
    refractory to best current management.

    Related Resources

    Support for mucositis  cancersupportivecare.com  
    Review these sections in Cancer Treatment Support for additional recommendations: 
    Avoiding Infections
    Diet Guidelines | Diet for Immunosuppressed |
    Oral Health
    Complimentary Medicine: Chemo-protection  PAL | Radio-protection  PAL
    Low blood counts  PAL
    Chemotherapy side effects  PAL
    Quick Reference
    Stomatitis or mucositis: inflammation of lining of the digestive system.
    (Dry Mouth)
    Return to top


    Research News:

    New Drug for Mouth Sores after Bone Marrow Transplants ~ Palifermin Approved for Leukemia, Lymphoma Patients  cancer.org
    Palifermin (rHu-KGF) Improves Quality of Life in Patients Undergoing Stem Cell Transplantation  CancerConsultants 2003 
    Amifostine: A Useful Radio/Chemoprotectant?  jo | Medscape
    Disclaimer:  The information on Lymphomation.org is not intended to be a substitute for 
    professional medical advice or to replace your relationship with a physician.
    For all medical concerns,  you should always consult your doctor. 
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