Radiation therapy is commonly used for tumors of the head and neck area, as well as other parts of the body. For any patient scheduled to receive radiation therapy to the head and neck area it is extremely important for most to see a dentist familiar with the types of problems associated with radiation therapy to the head and neck prior to beginning radiation therapy. Many of the serious problems that could arise can be prevented with simple measures at this stage.
Radiation therapy not only affects cancer cells, it also affects some of our healthy cells, and therefore changes may occur with this type of treatment. Some of the most common side effects include decreased blood supply, dry mouth, mouth sores, dental decay that can occur at a very rapid rate, fungal infections, loss of taste, difficulty swallowing and the risk of serious bone infection.
Some of the side effects last only during and shortly after radiation therapy, such as mouth sores; however, some of the side effects are permanent changes, most notably the dry mouth and decreased blood supply. Since the saliva serves to cleanse the teeth, with less saliva one is more at risk for a special type of dental decay known as radiation caries.
Fortunately, the risk of the most serious complications in the mouth can be reduced by a very through examination by a qualified dentist, who has a good knowledge of radiation therapy and its potential effects on the mouth. Fluoride trays can be utilized to prevent radiation decay. Conventional dental treatments may be necessary before radiation therapy is started to prevent serious dental infections and potential bone infections as well. Sores on the lining of the mouth can be helped with a variety of rinses. Exercises can be started if muscles of the jaw are going to be affected. Excellent brushing and flossing are a must to keep the teeth healthy. Due to the decreased blood supply, teeth cannot be extracted within the radiated area due to the high risk of losing bone and parts of the jaw. It is essential for the patient to commit to high quality dental care to prevent serious problems.