Mucositis is when your mouth or gut is sore and inflamed. It occurs when cancer treatment breaks down the rapidly dividing epithelial cells lining the gastro-intestinal tract (which goes from the mouth to the anus), leaving the mucosal tissue open to ulceration and infection.
Oral mucosa is one of the most sensitive parts of the body and is particularly vulnerable to chemotherapy and radiation. The oral cavity is the most common location for mucositis to develop. It can also occur in people with weakened immune systems as a result of noncancerous conditions.
Mucositis occurs in 40 percent of all people receiving chemo and up to 100 percent in people getting treatment for neck and head cancers. Knowing how mucositis develops, its symptoms, and its potential health hazards can help you recognise when you need to treat and manage the condition.
Watch out for these symptoms:
- Red, shiny, or swollen mouth and gums
- Blood in the mouth
- Sores in the mouth or gums, tongue.
- Soreness or pain in the mouth or throat.
- Difficulty swallowing or talking.
- Dryness, mild burning, or pain when eating.
- Soft, white patches or pus in the mouth or tongue.
- Increased mucus or thicker saliva.
The good news is mucositis typically goes away on its own once your treatment is finished. This can take two to four weeks with chemotherapy – or up to eight weeks with radiation. In the meantime, there are some steps you can take to reduce this side effect from happening.
The first and most important step is to see a dentist before beginning treatment. This will make sure your oral health is good, reducing the risk of any infections developing.
Secondly, stay hydrated by increasing your fluid intake, especially by drinking more water. Decaffeinated warm tea can be a comforting drink but avoid caffeinated beverages and alcohol.
Lastly, if you are struggling with food try soft, moist foods, or try adding gravy or sauces to meals. It also helps to let meals cool down before eating, as hot foods can irritate the mouth.
Here are some examples you can try:
- Baked potatoes
- Mashed potato
Other tips include:
- Seedless, high-water fruits are recommended, and pureeing foods such as vegetables and fruits can make them easier to eat.
- Foods slathered in olive or canola oil can also help you consume small bites by providing some slipperiness.
- Adding saltwater rinses to your daily oral care routine can help prevent or reduce mucositis' severity.
- Sucking on ice cubes immediately before and after each treatment session may protect your tissues. For some flavour, try frozen fruit.
If you do develop mucositis, try and avoid these things:
- Do not use lemon or glycerin swabs or toothbrushes without soft bristles.
- Limit the use of dental floss.
- Strong flavoured commercial mouthwashes and ones with alcohol.
- Spicy and hot foods.
Check out 'How to Cope with Dry Mouth' for more help and tips.