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Weight loss after head and neck radiotherapy

Weight loss during radiotherapy is often temporary and you'll usually go back to normal a few months after treatment. 

Why you may lose weight

Radiotherapy to your head and neck area can make you lose weight because you might have:

  • a sore or dry mouth
  • a poor appetite
  • taste changes due to treatment
  • difficulty swallowing due to soreness or swelling in your throat

These effects might be temporary and gradually go back to normal after a few months when the treatment ends. But for some people the effects may be permanent. There are things you can do to help keep your weight up though.

Coping with weight loss

It's important to eat and drink as well as you can but don't worry too much if you can't eat a lot during the treatment period.

Your doctor, specialist nurse or dietitian can prescribe nutritional supplements, such as high calorie drinks, to keep up your calories until your mouth feels better. Remember to drink plenty of other fluids too.

Ask the radiotherapy staff or the hospital dietitian what you should eat and drink to stay as healthy as possible. Try not to drink alcohol (especially spirits) or smoke because this can make your mouth and throat very sore.

Talk to your radiographers or the nursing staff if you are having problems eating or drinking. They might refer you to a dietitian for advice.

You can have strong painkillers if your throat is very sore and eating and drinking is painful.

You may need to have one of the following:

  • liquid feed through a drip into a vein or a tube down your nose to your stomach
  • a feeding tube put into your stomach through the skin and muscle of the abdomen (called a percutaneous endoscopic gastrostomy or PEG tube)

Your radiotherapy doctor (clinical oncologist) might stop your treatment for a while to allow you to recover but this is rare.

Last reviewed: 
14 Mar 2016
  • National Radiotherapy Implementation Group Report – Image Guided Radiotherapy (IGRT) guidance for implementation and use
    NHS National Cancer Action Team, August 2012

  • ESPEN (European Society Parenteral Nutrition and Metabolism) Guidelines on Parenteral Nutrition: Non-surgical oncology
    F Bozzetti and others
    Clinical nutrition, 2012

  • The oral management of oncology patients requiring radiotherapy, chemotherapy and / or bone marrow transplantation – clinical guidelines
    The Royal College of Surgeons of England and The British Society for Disability and Oral Health, updated 2012

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