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Managing Oral Mucositis

Oral mucositis occurs when the mucosal cells that line the mouth become swollen, irritated, and ulcerated. It can be a very troublesome and painful side effect of chemotherapy.

Mucositis can occur anywhere along the digestive tract from the mouth to the anus, but most studies and treatment focus on mucositis that occurs in the mouth. Knowing how and why mucositis happens may help you manage some of its symptoms.

How It Happens

Mucositis affects the digestive tract’s protective lining of cells. The chemicals used in chemotherapy do not differentiate between healthy cells and cancer cells, so they may break down the digestive tract’s healthy cells. This can leave the digestive tract prone to inflammation, irritation, and swelling.

While each person may experience different symptoms, the most common signs of mucositis include:

  • Redness and swelling of the gums, sometimes with ulcerations (sores) in the mouth and throat

  • A burning or aching feeling in the mouth

  • Abdominal cramping and tenderness

Signs and symptoms of mucositis may resemble other medical conditions, so talk with your doctor for an accurate diagnosis.

Managing Symptoms

Mucositis may occur a week or longer after chemotherapy is complete. Unfortunately, symptoms may not be preventable. However, you can take steps to help manage the pain of mucositis, including the following:

  • Keep your mouth moist by drinking plenty of fluids.

  • Avoid smoking and alcohol—including mouthwash that contains alcohol.

  • Do not consume food or drinks that are highly acidic, such as oranges and lemons—and their juices. Also avoid foods that are spicy, rough or hard.

  • Use lip balms or creams to keep your lips lubricated.

  • Practice good oral hygiene habits: Brush gently at least twice a day, with special attention to the gum line. Use a new soft bristled brush each month, or at the start of each new chemotherapy cycle. Floss at least once a day.

  • Use a mild mouthwash, such as saline solution or baking soda, before each meal and bedtime.

  • Suck on ice chips or popsicles.

To further relieve symptoms, your doctor may prescribe a numbing solution for the mouth or other analgesics (pain relievers).

“Oral Mucositis.” Interactive Textbook on Clinical Symptom Research, National Institutes of Health, 2003. http://painconsortium.nih.gov/symptomresearch/Chapter_17/index.htm Accessed 2013.

“Cancer Treatment-Induced Mucositis Pain: Strategies for Assessment and Management.” Therapeutics and Clinical Risk Management, September 2006; 2(3): pp. 251–258. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1936261/ Accessed 2013.

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