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Your mouth and cancer drugs

Coping with cancer

This page tells you about how cancer drugs can affect your mouth and how to cope. There is information about


How cancer drugs might affect your mouth

Many different types of drugs are used to treat cancer. Some drugs can affect the lining of your mouth and make it sore. Other drugs may temporarily change your sense of taste.

Our cancer drugs section has a separate page about each individual cancer drug, so that you can see whether your drug is likely to cause a sore mouth or taste changes. Even if a drug can cause these effects, it may not affect you that way. Drugs affect people in different ways and it is not possible to tell in advance who will have side effects. It depends on

  • The drug or combination of drugs you are having
  • The dose
  • How you react to the drug
  • How you have reacted to drug treatment in the past

We have detailed information in our section about mouth problems with cancer. It includes information on the types of mouth problems and how they're treated and advice on daily mouth care. You can look there if you can’t find what you are looking for here.


Soreness and mouth ulcers

Some types of chemotherapy and biological therapy drugs can cause changes in the lining of your mouth and make it very sore. Some of these drugs can even cause mouth ulcers. Inflammation of the inside of your mouth is called mucositis. It can happen about 5 to 10 days after you start treatment. It usually gradually clears up 3 to 4 weeks after your treatment ends. Bisphosphonates and hormone therapies do not usually cause a sore mouth.

Sometimes mouth ulcers can get infected. Your doctor or nurse can give you treatment for this. If you are having drugs that are known to cause mouth ulcers, your nurse may give you mouth washes to help prevent infection. You have to use these regularly to get the most protection. Our page about daily mouth care tells you how to keep your mouth as healthy as possible.

If your mouth is really sore, tell your doctor or nurse straight away. They can help to reduce the discomfort. Some people need strong painkillers to help control mouth pain so that they can eat and drink. With some drugs, some people even need to have morphine for a short time, because their mouths are so painful.


Helpful hints for a sore mouth

  • Clean your mouth and teeth gently every morning, evening and after each meal
  • Use a child’s, or soft bristled, toothbrush
  • Remove and clean dentures every morning, evening, and after each meal
  • If toothpaste stings, or brushing your teeth makes you feel sick, try a bicarbonate of soda mouthwash instead (one teaspoonful dissolved in a mug of warm water)
  • Half a teaspoon of salt dissolved in warm water and then gargled can be soothing
  • Avoid mouthwashes that contain alcohol
  • Use dental floss daily but be very gentle so that you don't harm your gums - don't floss if you have very low platelets
  • Use lip balm to keep your lips moist
  • Avoid neat spirits, tobacco, hot spices, garlic, onion, vinegar and salty food
  • Moisten meals with gravies and sauces to make swallowing easier
  • Try to drink at least one and a half litres (3 pints) of fluid a day – have tea or coffee, fruit and vegetable juices, soft drinks or water
  • Tell your doctor if you have mouth ulcers
  • Eating fresh or tinned pineapple can keep your mouth fresh and moist
  • Avoid acidic fruits such as oranges, grapefruit, or lemons
  • Chew gum to help you to produce more saliva to keep your mouth moist
  • If you are having high dose chemotherapy and radiotherapy before a stem cell transplant your doctor can prescribe medicines to help prevent mouth soreness

Taste changes

Some chemotherapy and biological therapy drugs can make food taste strange or may give you a metallic taste in your mouth. Food may taste

  • Salty
  • Bitter
  • Metallic

Your taste usually gradually goes back to normal when your treatment is over but it may take a few weeks.


Helpful hints for taste changes

  • Avoid foods that taste strange to you, but try them every few weeks as your taste may have gone back to normal
  • If all your food tastes the same, choose foods that have strong flavours, such as herbs, spices, marinades and sauces
  • Season your food with spices or herbs, such as rosemary, basil and mint
  • Garnish cold meat or cheese with pickle or chutney
  • Marinate meat in fruit juice or wine
  • Cover meat or fish in strong sauces like sweet and sour or curry
  • If tea or coffee taste strange, try lemon or green tea instead
  • Sharp tasting fizzy drinks like lemonade or ginger beer are refreshing
  • Some people find that cold foods taste better than hot foods

A dry mouth

Some cancer drugs can make your mouth dry. This happens sometimes with chemotherapy drugs, biological therapy drugs, painkillers or hormone therapies.


Helpful tips if you have a dry mouth

  • Keep a drink available that you can sip
  • Try to drink at least 3 pints (one and a half litres) of fluid a day
  • Choose meals that are moist
  • Use gravies and sauces to make swallowing easier
  • Milk, water, fruit or vegetable juices are the best drinks to choose, but any fluid is better than nothing
  • Suck ice chips to refresh your mouth
  • Eating fresh or tinned pineapple can keep your mouth fresh and moist, but avoid acidic fruits (such as oranges, grapefruit) if your mouth is sore
  • If you want to drink citrus juices, dilute them with water so they are not as acidic
  • If your mouth is very dry talk to your doctor or nurse about artificial saliva products – there are tablets, mouthwashes, gum, pastilles, and toothpastes

More about eating and diet problems

If you have problems with eating due to cancer drugs you can find helpful information in our section about diet problems with cancer. If you would like more information about anything to do with healthy eating, look at our News and Resources section.

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Updated: 18 March 2013