How Lung Cancer Affects Your Oral Health

Medically Reviewed by Laura J. Martin, MD on January 29, 2023
4 min read

When you have lung cancer, you may notice that it even seems to affect your mouth. It could be dryer, or more sensitive, or painful, or have sores. Food might not even taste the way it usually does.

Usually, those changes are related to the treatments, not the disease itself. But if your cancer spreads to your lymph nodes or other areas around your head or neck, it could cause problems like pain.

No doubt about it: You need the lung cancer treatments. Every person is different -- you may or may not get the same side effects as someone else. If you do notice changes in your mouth or any other part of your body, work with your doctors to reduce or manage them.

Some types of chemotherapy can affect your white blood cells, red blood cells, and platelets. That can affect your gums and the lining in your mouth.

Likewise, certain kinds of radiation therapy can cause pain and stiffness, and even contribute to cavities in your teeth because of dry mouth.

The top cause of lung cancer -- smoking -- may also be part of the problem. It raises your chance of getting conditions like gum disease (gingivitis) and mouth sores. If you quit tobacco, those problems become less likely, though they’re still more likely than for a nonsmoker.

When you get treated for cancer in your lungs or elsewhere in your body, you might have:

Mouth sores. These can appear on the lining of your mouth and throat. They can make it hard to eat and drink.

Dry mouth. This can make it hard to swallow and make you more likely to get infections and cavities.

Bleeding or sensitive gums. Your doctor or dentist may call this gingivitis.

Aches and pains in and around your jaw.

Changes in the way food tastes. You might have less of an appetite, too, which can impact your ability to get enough healthy food.

New cavities.

Infections in your mouth.

If you notice any of these things, tell your doctor, a nurse, or another member of your cancer care team. Although some of these side effects can be normal, they can sometimes be a sign that your treatment plan needs to change.

Get a dental checkup before you start treatment for lung cancer. Don’t delay your cancer care. But if it’s possible, try to see your dentist at least a month ahead, in case your mouth needs time to recover from a dental procedure. Your dentist or periodontist should look at your teeth and gums. You may get dental X-rays, too.

Exercise your jaw if you get radiation therapy. Three times a day, open and close your mouth as far as you can without feeling pain 20 times. This can help prevent and ease stiffness in your jaw muscles.

Eat well. You may not have as much of an appetite when you’re going through treatment. But try to keep eating healthy foods, which nourish your body. Skip spicy or acidic foods, and tobacco and alcohol, too. They can irritate sensitive tissues in your mouth.

Suck on ice chips (don’t chew them!) or sugar-free frozen pops during chemotherapy. These can ease mouth sores and dry mouth. Chomping on ice chips is really bad for your teeth and gums.

Skip mouthwashes that contain alcohol, which can be drying. Look for an alcohol-free one that has fluoride. If you don’t have any mouthwash, rinse with water regularly, which can clear your mouth and gums of food particles and bacteria. You may want to consider using a mix that has a quarter teaspoon of baking soda and a quarter teaspoon salt in 1 quart of warm water. If you have mouth sores, rinse with plain warm water that has a little bit of salt in it. Your dentist can also prescribe a mouthwash that may help with sores.

Gently brush your teeth, gums, and tongue after every meal, and before bed, too. If it hurts to brush, you can soften your toothbrush by soaking it in warm water before you use it. If toothpaste stings, brush with salt water -- add a quarter teaspoon of salt to 2 cups of water.

Floss daily. If your gums are sore or bleed, ask your dentist if you should skip those areas. Most likely, you’ll be able to keep flossing.

Ask your dentist about using fluoride treatments to protect your teeth from cavities. Your dentist may make a tray for your teeth that you wear at night, or you may get a fluoride treatment at your next dental checkup.

Keep your dentist up to date. They should know about your diagnosis and treatment plan, and see you for regular dental checkups throughout treatment.

Talk to your cancer care team or cancer doctor about your dental health. Ask how treatment will affect your mouth and teeth, and what you should do now and later to stay healthy. You’ll also want to confirm that it’s safe to get dental care if you have teeth or gum problems.