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Side effects of radiotherapy for salivary gland cancer

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This page tells you about the possible side effects of radiotherapy for salivary gland cancer. There is information about

 

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Side effects of radiotherapy for salivary gland cancer

Most people have some side effects with radiotherapy to the salivary gland and neck area. The effects usually are at their worst at the end of your treatment course. Over the next 2 to 3 weeks, they slowly get better. Getting over a long course of treatment completely can take several months.

Generally, radiotherapy causes tiredness and sore, red skin in the treatment area. Sometimes you may also feel sick. Don’t put any lotions, powders or creams on the treated skin without checking first with your radiotherapy department.

Other side effects

Other side effects with salivary gland cancer radiotherapy can include

  • A dry mouth – radiotherapy to this area can damage the glands that make saliva, but artificial lubricating agents and stimulants for your salivary glands can help
  • Sore throat and pain on swallowing – your mouth and throat may become increasingly sore due to mouth ulcers and you may need strong painkillers and a liquid diet
  • Changes to your sense of taste
  • Hearing loss
  • Problems with your teeth

If you need help with side effects, speak to your radiographer or nurse at the radiotherapy department. They can help you manage the side effects.

 

CR PDF Icon You can view and print the quick guides for all the pages in the Treating salivary gland cancer section.

 

 

When side effects happen

The side effects of radiotherapy usually come on gradually during your course of treatment. Most people have some side effects from radiotherapy to the salivary gland area. They are usually at their worst at the end of your course. 

Over the 2 to 3 weeks following your treatment, they slowly get better. It may take up to 6 weeks before the soreness has entirely gone. Getting over a long course of treatment completely can take quite a few months.

 

General side effects

Generally, radiotherapy causes tiredness and sore, red skin in the treatment area. This is a bit like sunburn. You may also feel sick for a while after the treatment.

Remember not to put any lotions, powders or creams on the skin in the radiotherapy treatment area, without checking first with your radiotherapy department. If the skin is sore, some creams can make things worse, not better. If you need it, ask the staff in the radiotherapy department for something to soothe your skin.

 

Dry mouth

The salivary glands make saliva, which keeps your mouth and throat moist and your teeth healthy. It also helps make swallowing and digestion of food easier, and helps your sense of taste. Radiotherapy to the salivary glands stops them making saliva. You see a restorative dentistry consultant before you start treatment.

Usually only the glands on the treated side of your face are affected. This means that glands on the other side should still make saliva. Rarely, some people have a permanently dry mouth after the treatment. This can make eating and talking uncomfortable.

If you have trouble with a dry mouth, the team caring for you can prescribe artificial lubricating agents and stimulants for your salivary glands. These help to keep your mouth moist and make you more comfortable. They also reduce the chance of infections or tooth decay. You need to have regular check ups from your dentist.

Most people start making saliva again within 4 to 8 weeks of finishing treatment. The saliva is likely to be quite thick and may taste unpleasant at first.

 

Sore mouth and throat

Your mouth and throat may get increasingly sore with mouth ulcers as you go through your treatment. If they are very sore, you may need strong painkillers such as morphine. 

Your doctor may also prescribe a mouth gel such as Gelclair. This gel forms a protective barrier over the inside of the mouth, a bit like a dressing. This can make your mouth less painful. You will then find it easier to eat and drink.

 

Taste changes

Radiotherapy to the head or neck often affects taste. You may lose your sense of taste, or have strange tastes, or dulled taste. People often describe a metallic taste in their mouth after radiotherapy and some types of chemotherapy. 

Loss of taste can reduce your appetite. This doesn’t help when you are finding it difficult to eat anyway. Although you can recover your sense of taste, some people may find it is permanently dulled.

 

Hearing loss

Standard radiotherapy for parotid gland cancer may cause damage to the inner ear and hearing loss.

 

Problems with your teeth

Radiotherapy to your mouth can make you more likely to get tooth decay. You need to go for check ups at the dentist more often. Fluoride treatment may help to protect your teeth. You can have this as a mouthwash to use twice a day. Sometimes you might have to have some teeth taken out before you start treatment. 

Your specialist may refer you to a restorative dentistry consultant before your radiotherapy. A restorative dentist is a specialist in removing or replacing lost tissues and teeth. 

Remember to tell your dentist that you have had radiotherapy to your salivary glands before you have any dental work. Any dental work that needs to be done should be carried out by a restorative dentistry consultant. If you need to have teeth removed following radiotherapy treatment, this should be done under the care of a maxillofacial surgeon. 

Oral and maxillofacial surgeons are highly qualified, and are trained both as doctors and dentists. They specialise in the surgical treatment of a wide variety of conditions affecting the mouth, jaw, face and neck, including reconstructive surgery and facial plastic surgery.

There is a clinical trial looking at how to reduce the risk of bone damage after radiotherapy to the jawbone.

 

For more information

Find out about

Salivary glands

Radiotherapy general side effects

Radiotherapy side effects to the head and neck

Living with salivary gland cancer

Painkillers

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Updated: 1 July 2014