Your Dental Health and Cancers of the Head and Neck


Cancers of the head and neck can affect a number of different sites. This includes sinus cavities, as well as the brain, nose, throat, and mouth. As with malignancies in other parts of the body, tumors in the head and neck are treated with combinations of radiation, chemotherapy, and surgery.

If you are about to begin treatment for cancers in the head and neck, it is important to see your dentist first. He/she will look to do any dental work that may need to be done before you finish treatment for the malignancy. For example, you may need to address tooth decay and infections. Ultimately, having these issues may reduce the risk of infections that may come up while you are being treated for the tumours.

Why Procedure is Used

It is important to see your dentist every 2 - 3 months. Among other things, you will need to have your teeth cleaned more often. If you are being treated for cancer, your dentist may also allow you to make use of daily fluoride treatments to reduce the risk of tooth decay. Typically, this will be more important if you are going to have radiation treatments.

Patient Concerns to be Addressed

Depending on the type of treatment you receive, it may have different effects on your oral health. For example, radiation can cause muscle stiffness and swelling in your throat, jaws and face. This stiffness can make it harder to open your mouth, and also to clean your teeth. Radiation can also increase your risk of developing mouth sores. Unfortunately, radiation will also reduce the amount of blood flow. As a result, sores and infections will take longer to heal.

If you need to have teeth removed after you are done with radiation therapy, your dentist will give you will need to have very high doses of oxygen. Typically, this is used to help prevent the bones from suffering from oxygen deprivation. As may be expected, it is better to have teeth removed prior to undergoing radiation. In most cases, you will also need to have antibiotics in order to reduce the chance of infection.

In most cases, chemotherapy will also have an effect on your oral health. Among other things, it can lead to an outbreak of herpes, as well as increase the chance of developing mouth sores. You may also notice a loss of appetite, change in your sense of taste, and dry mouth. As with radiation, chemotherapy can also increase your risk of developing infections. You may also be more prone to bleeding. Fortunately, chemotherapy will not permanently reduce blood flow. Therefore, your dentist may not need to be as concerned about extractions prior to treatment.

As may be expected, the impact of surgery will depend on a number of things. For example, if bone has to be removed, your dentist may try to reconstruct the area. If you need to have jaw bone removed, it can take longer than a year to complete reconstruction. On the other hand, if the tongue or salivary glands need to be removed, you may require other types of procedures. Unfortunately, your ability to speak may be affected by these surgeries.

How Is Procedure Performed?

In many instances, radiation will cause salivary glands to malfunction. For example, if radiation is given near the lower jaw, it can destroy the largest salivary glands, known as the parotid glands. Unfortunately, these glands do not usually recover proper function after radiation treatment. On the other hand, they may make a reasonable recovery once you are done with chemotherapy.

Typically, your dentist will give you artificial saliva, or some type of medication that will stimulate saliva production. Unfortunately, without saliva, it will be very hard to keep your mouth clean. A constantly dry mouth can also increase the chances of developing gum disease, oral yeast infections and tooth decay.

Perils of Disease

As may be expected, dental issues associated with head and neck cancers will depend on the type of treatment that you receive, as well as your own unique physiology. For example, dry mouth issues may develop as a result of taking cancer therapies as well as other kinds of medications. If your salivary glands did not work well before cancer treatment, this type of treatment may make the situation worse.