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Oral Complications of Chemotherapy and Head/Neck Radiation (PDQ®): Supportive care - Health Professional Information [NCI] - Oral and Dental Management After Cancer Therapy

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Considerable variation exists across institutions relative to specific nonmedicated approaches to baseline oral care, given limited published evidence. Most nonmedicated oral care protocols use topical, frequent (every 4–6 hours) rinsing with 0.9% saline. Additional interventions include dental brushing with toothpaste, dental flossing, ice chips, and sodium bicarbonate rinses. Patient compliance with these agents can be maximized by comprehensive overseeing by the health care professional.

Patients using removable dental prostheses or orthodontic appliances have risk of mucosal injury or infection. This risk can be eliminated or substantially reduced prior to high-dose cancer therapy. (Refer to the list of Guidelines for Management of Dentures and Orthodontic Appliances in Patients Receiving High-dose Cancer Therapy.)

Dental brushing and flossing represent simple, cost-effective approaches to bacterial dental plaque control. This strategy is designed to reduce risk of oral soft tissue infection during myeloablation. Oncology teams at some centers promote their use, while teams at other centers have patients discontinue brushing and flossing when peripheral blood components decrease below defined thresholds (e.g., platelets <30,000/mm3). There is no comprehensive evidence base regarding the optimal approach. Many centers adopt the strategy that the benefits of properly performed dental brushing and flossing in reducing risk of gingival infection outweigh the risks.

Periodontal infection (gingivitis and periodontitis) increases risk for oral bleeding; healthy tissues should not bleed. Discontinuing dental brushing and flossing can increase risk for gingival bleeding, oral infection, and bacteremia. Risk for gingival bleeding and infection, therefore, is reduced by eliminating gingival infection before therapy and promoting oral health daily by removing bacterial plaque with gentle debridement with a soft or ultra-soft toothbrush during therapy. Mechanical plaque control not only promotes gingival health, but it also may decrease risk of exacerbation of oral mucositis secondary to microbial colonization of damaged mucosal surfaces.

Dental brushing and flossing should be performed daily under the supervision of professional staff:

  • A soft nylon-bristled toothbrush should be used 2 to 3 times a day with techniques that specifically maintain the gingival portion of the tooth and periodontal sulcus, keeping them free of bacterial plaque.
  • Rinsing the toothbrush in hot water every 15 to 30 seconds during brushing will soften the brush and reduce risk for trauma.
  • Oral rinsing with water or saline 3 to 4 times while brushing will further aid in removal of dental plaque dislodged by brushing.
  • Rinses containing alcohol should be avoided.
  • A toothpaste with a relatively neutral taste should be considered because the flavoring agents in toothpaste can irritate oral soft tissues.
  • Brushes should be air-dried between uses.
  • While disinfectants have been suggested, their routine use to clean brushes has not been proven of value.
  • Ultrasonic toothbrushes may be substituted for manual brushes if patients are properly trained in their use.
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WebMD Public Information from the National Cancer Institute

Last Updated: February 25, 2014
This information is not intended to replace the advice of a doctor. Healthwise disclaims any liability for the decisions you make based on this information.
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