04/18/2016 10:18 EDT | Updated 04/19/2017 05:12 EDT

Dental Care During Cancer Treatment: What You Need To Know

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Dentist hygienist exam

April is Cancer Awareness Month; and as a professional working in the healthcare field, I see firsthand what those undergoing cancer treatment have to endure. I know the path to better health is a difficult one, which is why it's so important to understand the negative effects of cancer care on your dental health, including the teeth, gums, salivary glands and other oral tissues.

When there are pre-existing dental issues such as cavities, abscesses, or gingivitis, the infection may become worse during treatment. Gums are more likely to become swollen and painful, with a higher probability of bleeding. Mouth sores may also occur during chemotherapy, and other mouth irritations often worsen.

These side effects can be painful, but there are ways to minimize and prevent them while receiving dental health during cancer treatment, such as:

Medication: There are specific medications that can ease discomfort and prevent sores -- these can be prescribed by a doctor. Pain medicine, such as Tylenol or stronger, may also be used. Always avoid using aspirin or non-steroidal medication (Advil, Motrin) during chemotherapy, as they can cause bleeding. For dry mouth, saliva substitutions can be helpful.

Work with your dental professional: Your dental professional and oncologist can work together to make you as comfortable as possible. Continuing with regularly scheduled dental hygiene appointments so your hygienist can monitor your oral comfort and make changes as required is also important.

Oral health routine: Unless otherwise recommended, continue to gently brush teeth twice per day with fluoride toothpaste, and gently floss once a day. If gums are sore or bleeding, avoid those areas but continue to floss the remainder of your teeth.

Stay hydrated: Drinking at least eight glasses of water or juices daily can be helpful with many dental side effects including dry mouth, or xerostomia. Using lip balm can help prevent your lips from cracking, and cool mist humidifier will add much-needed needed moisture to your home.

Food and drink: There are certain foods that you may want to avoid, such as spicy dishes, and anything that is difficult to chew. Tomato and citrus juices will also irritate any mouth sores you may have. Avoiding caffeinated and alcoholic beverages is a smart idea, as they both promote mouth dryness. Some find that chewing sugarless gum is helpful with their dry mouth.

To help neutralize any stomach acids left in the mouth after vomiting, you can use a baking soda mouthwash by mixing ¼ tsp baking soda and 1 cup water. Swish it in your mouth for about 30 seconds and the spit it out. Discard any used mouthwash after 24 hours. If you are giving this to a young child who cannot swish and spit, then apply it to their teeth, tongue and gums using gauze or their toothbrush.

Tooth and mouth care in children during chemotherapy and/or radiation is just as important, and should follow the same strict guidelines as adults.

For children and youth experiencing mouth sores, try offering foods like: milkshakes, scrambled eggs, pureed foods, ice chips, custards/puddings and even ice cream or frozen yogurt.

With these tips and ongoing care from your dental professionals, you can rest assure that you will be as comfortable as possible during treatment.

Feel free to share this post during Cancer Awareness month, and help others take the necessary steps to prevent these oral health side effects.

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