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Oral Complications of Chemotherapy and Head/Neck Radiation (PDQ®): Supportive care - Health Professional Information [NCI] - Oral Mucositis

The terms oral mucositis and stomatitis are often used interchangeably at the clinical level, but they do not reflect identical processes.

Oral Mucositis:

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  • Describes inflammation of oral mucosa resulting from chemotherapeutic agents or ionizing radiation.[1,2,3]
  • Typically manifests as erythema or ulcerations.
  • May be exacerbated by local factors.

Stomatitis:

  • Refers to any inflammatory condition of oral tissue, including mucosa, dentition/periapices, and periodontium.
  • Includes infections of oral tissues as well as mucositis.

Risk of oral mucositis has historically been characterized by treatment-based and patient-based variables.[4] The current model of oral mucositis involves a complex trajectory of molecular, cellular, and tissue-based changes. There is increasing evidence of genetic governance of this injury,[5,6,7,8] characterized in part by upregulation of nuclear factor kappa beta and inflammatory cytokines (e.g., tumor necrosis factor-alpha) and interleukin-1 in addition to epithelial basal cell injury. Comprehensive knowledge of the molecular-based causation of the lesion has contributed to targeted drug development for clinical use.[9] The pipeline of new drugs in development (e.g., recombinant human intestinal trefoil factor [10] may lead to strategic new advances in the ability of clinicians to customize the prevention and treatment of oral mucositis in the future.[11]

Erythematous mucositis typically appears 7 to 10 days after initiation of high-dose cancer therapy. Clinicians should be alert to the potential for increased toxicity with escalating dose or treatment duration in clinical trials that demonstrate gastrointestinal mucosal toxicity. High-dose chemotherapy, such as that used in the treatment of leukemia and hematopoietic stem cell transplant regimens, may produce severe mucositis. Mucositis is self-limited when uncomplicated by infection and typically heals within 2 to 4 weeks after cessation of cytotoxic chemotherapy.

Systematic assessment of the oral cavity following treatment permits early identification of lesions.[12,13,14,15,16] Oral hygiene and other supportive care measures are important to minimizing the severity of the lesion.

In an effort to standardize measurements of mucosal integrity, oral assessment scales have been developed to grade the level of stomatitis by characterizing alterations in lips, tongue, mucous membranes, gingiva, teeth, pharynx, quality of saliva, and voice.[12,13,14] Specific instruments of assessment have been developed to evaluate the observable and functional dimensions of mucositis. These evaluative tools vary in complexity.

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