Coronavirus and cancer

We know it’s a worrying time for people with cancer, we have information to help. If you have symptoms of cancer contact your doctor.

Read our information about coronavirus and cancer

Decorative image

Your mouth and cancer drugs

Some cancer drugs can cause a sore or dry mouth. Others may cause taste changes. But there are treatments that can help and things you can do to cope.

How cancer drugs can affect your mouth

Doctors use many different types of drugs to treat cancer. Some drugs can change the cells in the lining of your mouth and make it sore (mucositis). Other drugs may affect the secretion of spit (saliva) in your mouth, causing a dry mouth (xerostomia) 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
  • the route (by mouth or as an injection or a drip through a vein)
  • how you react to the drug
  • how you have reacted to drug treatment in the past

Soreness and mouth ulcers

Mucositis

Mucositis means inflammation of the lining of the mouth. The inside of your mouth might become red and swollen with white patches. These areas can turn into ulcers.

A sore mouth happens because the cancer drug kills not only the quickly dividing cancer cells but also the cells that make up the lining of your mouth. These cells also divide quickly.

Mucositis can be painful, and you might find it hard to eat and drink. Some people find that it affects their quality of life. Your mouth might be more painful if you’re having high dose chemotherapy.

A sore mouth affects about 20 to 40 out of every 100 people (20-40%) having chemotherapy. And about 80 out of every 100 people (80%) having high dose chemotherapy.

Targeted cancer drugs and immunotherapy can also cause a sore mouth. 

A sore mouth caused by chemotherapy usually happens about 5 to 10 days after you start treatment. It gradually clears up 2 to 3 weeks after your treatment ends.

Bisphosphonates and hormone therapies do not usually cause a sore mouth.

Treatment

It is important to keep your mouth clean while having chemotherapy. You should particularly do so if you are having drugs that are known to cause mouth ulcers. Your nurse might give you mouthwashes to help prevent infection. You have to use these regularly to get the most protection.

Sometimes mouth ulcers can get infected. But your doctor or specialist nurse can give you treatment for this.

Tell your doctor or nurse straight away if your mouth is sore. They can offer advice and treatment that can help your mouth to be less sore. You might need strong painkillers such as morphine or morphine based painkillers. This will help control mouth pain and eating and drinking will be more comfortable.

When you're having high dose chemotherapy and radiotherapy before a stem cell transplant, you are likely to get a sore mouth. Your doctor can prescribe medicines to help prevent soreness.

Tips for keeping your teeth clean

  • 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 - check with your pharmacist if you are unsure.
  • 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.

Tips for eating with a sore mouth

  • 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.
  • Avoid acidic fruits such as oranges, grapefruit, or lemons.
  • Chew gum to help you to produce more saliva to keep your mouth moist.

A dry mouth

Some cancer drugs can make your mouth dry. This is also called xerostomia. It happens because the drugs affect the glands that produce spit (saliva).

Your spit might be thick and swallowing and talking difficult. In some people, it can be more of a problem than others. A dry mouth will improve once you’ve finished treatment.

Cancer drugs that can cause a dry mouth are some types of:

  • chemotherapy
  • immunotherapy
  • anti sickness
  • painkillers

The following tips might help to cope with the symptoms of a dry mouth.

Tips for 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 – they are available as tablets, mouthwashes, gum, pastilles, and toothpastes.
  • Keep your lips moist with a lip balm.

More information

There are many ways your team can help you with a sore mouth and other mouth problems.

Last reviewed: 
22 Jan 2020
  • Cancer: Principles and Practice of Oncology (11th edition)

    VT DeVita , TS Lawrence, SA Rosenberg

    Lippincott, Williams and Wilkins, 2019

  • Oral toxicity associated with chemotherapy

    R Negrin and others

    UpToDate website

    Accessed January 2020

  • Electronic Medicines Compendium
    Accessed January 2020

  • Toxic Side Effects of Targeted Therapies and Immunotherapies Affecting the Skin, Oral Mucosa, Hair, and Nails

    M Lacouture and V Sibaud

    American Journal of Clinical Dermatology. 2018; 19(Supplement1): 31–39.

  • Mouth care
    Scottish Palliative Care Guidelines,

    Accessed January 2020

  • Mouth ulcers and mucositis
    National Institute of Health and Care Excellence (NICE) - Clinical Knowledge Summaries

    Accessed January 2020

  • The information on this page is based on literature searches and specialist checking. We used many references and there are too many to list here. If you need additional references for this information please contact patientinformation@cancer.org.uk with details of the particular issue you are interested in.

Information and help