What is Oral Mucositis?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: O. Wallace
  • Last Modified Date: 04 October 2018
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Oral mucositis is a condition in which the mucus membranes inside the mouth because inflamed and begin to ulcerate. This condition is an extremely common side effect of cancer treatment. It can be difficult to prevent oral mucositis, but there are some steps which can be taken to treat it, keeping the patient more comfortable and reducing the risk of further complications. Because this side effect is so common, many oncologists make a point of checking for it during patient appointments.

Chemotherapy and radiation are designed to attack and break down cancer cells. Unfortunately, these treatments are not entirely selective; while they are targeted at specific cells, there is often a great deal of collateral damage. Oral mucositis is an example of the type of damage which can occur by accident, as the delicate membranes in the mouth break down and begin to slough off, thinning and creating ulcerations.

Even at a low level, oral mucositis can be painful. It is usually difficult and uncomfortable to eat, and patients may have difficulty with hot, sour, salty, and other strongly flavored foods. The ulcerations are also vulnerable to infection with fungi, bacteria, and viruses, which can lead to an infection in the blood. Since the patient's immune system is already compromised, this infection can become fatal. Some patients develop extreme difficulty eating and cannot even take fluids.


Primary care for oral mucositis involves keeping the mouth clean. Mouthwashes may be prescribed for regular use, including mouthwashes with moisturizers to keep the mouth lubricated. Medicated mouthwashes with painkillers can also be used to dull the sensation of pain experienced by many patients, and pain management medications can also be administered orally or intravenously.

It is important to be on watch for oral mucositis so that prompt intervention can be provided. Because the complications of oral infections can be fatal in cancer patients, steps should be taken to prevent infection from setting in. Managing the inflammation will also keep the patient more comfortable, which will improve quality of life during treatment.

When preparing for cancer treatment, patients may want to ask about the side effects associated with the treatment regimen. Some chemotherapy and radiation regimens are more likely to result in oral mucositis than others, and it can be helpful to be prepared ahead of time, and to be aware of the early warning signs, such as changes in taste perceptions, redness in the mouth, and tenderness in the mouth.



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