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Nutrition in Cancer Care (PDQ®): Supportive care - Patient Information [NCI] - Treatment of Symptoms

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Taking zinc sulfate tablets during radiation therapy to the head and neck may help a normal sense of taste come back faster after treatment.

Dry Mouth

Dry mouth is often caused by radiation therapy to the head and neck and by certain medicines. Dry mouth may affect speech, taste, and the ability to swallow or to use dentures or braces. There is also an increased risk of cavities and gum disease because less saliva is made to wash the teeth and gums.

The main treatment for dry mouth is drinking plenty of liquids. Other ways to help relieve dry mouth include the following:

  • Keep water handy at all times to moisten the mouth.
  • Eat moist foods with extra sauces, gravies, butter, or margarine.
  • Eat foods and drinks that are very sweet or tart (to increase saliva).
  • Eat ice chips or frozen desserts (such as frozen grapes and ice pops).
  • Drink fruit nectar instead of juice.
  • Suck on hard candy or chew gum.
  • Use a straw to drink liquids.
  • Clean teeth (including dentures) and rinse mouth at least four times a day (after eating and at bedtime). Don't use mouth rinses that contain alcohol.

See the Dry Mouth section of the PDQ summary on Oral Complications of Chemotherapy and Head/Neck Radiation for more information.

Mouth Sores and Infections

Mouth sores can be caused by chemotherapy and radiation therapy. These treatments affect fast-growing cells, such as cancer cells. Normal cells inside the mouth also grow quickly and may be damaged by these cancer treatments. Mouth sores can be painful and become infected or bleed and make it hard to eat. By choosing certain foods and taking good care of their mouths, patients can usually make eating easier. The following can help patients who have mouth sores and infections:

  • Eat soft foods that are easy to chew and swallow, such as the following:
    • Soft fruits, including bananas, applesauce, and watermelon.
    • Peach, pear, and apricot nectars.
    • Cottage cheese.
    • Mashed potatoes.
    • Macaroni and cheese.
    • Custards and puddings.
    • Gelatin.
    • Milkshakes.
    • Scrambled eggs.
    • Oatmeal or other cooked cereals.
  • Stay away from the following:
    • Citrus fruits and juices, (such as oranges, tangerines, lemons, and grapefruit).
    • Spicy or salty foods.
    • Rough, coarse, or dry foods, including raw vegetables, granola, toast, and crackers.
  • Use a blender to make vegetables (such as potatoes, peas, and carrots) and meats smooth.
  • Add gravy, broth, or sauces to food.
  • Drink high-calorie, high-protein drinks in addition to meals.
  • Cook foods until soft and tender.
  • Eat foods cold or at room temperature. Hot and warm foods can irritate a tender mouth.
  • Cut foods into small pieces.
  • Use a straw to drink liquids.
  • Numb the mouth with ice chips or flavored ice pops before eating.
  • Clean teeth (including dentures) and rinse mouth at least four times a day (after eating and at bedtime).
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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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