Salivary Gland Disease Chemotherapy

Radiation therapy and chemotherapy are two principal methods of cancer treatment. While the effects of chemotherapy and radiation can be very beneficial for those with cancer, certain side effects of these treatments can be uncomfortable and even painful.

One of the possible effects of chemotherapy is dry mouth. Radiation therapy side effects can also include damage to the salivary glands.

Chemotherapy’s Side Effects on Salivary Glands

The drugs patients receive to treat their cancer can also affect other body organs, including the salivary glands. Dry mouth, or xerostomia, is one of the more common side effects of chemotherapy.

During or after chemotherapy treatment, the salivary glands can become enlarged. This significantly reduces the production of saliva, leading to dry mouth. Some chemotherapy drugs are worse than others for causing dry mouth, and the size and frequency of the chemotherapy dose affects the intensity of symptoms. Fortunately, most of these chemotherapy side effects cease when treatment is completed.

Radiation Therapy Side Effects on Salivary Glands

Side effects of radiation on the salivary glands are seen most often in patients being treated for throat and mouth cancer, or cancers of the lower brain. Permanent damage to the salivary glands may occur as a result of intense radiation treatment.

Within a week of starting radiation treatment, saliva production drops due to the damage radiation does to the salivary glands, and dry mouth develops. The size of the dose and the number of glands irradiated determines the severity of the symptoms.

The parotid salivary glands, located in the upper cheeks near the ears, are more vulnerable to radiation therapy side effects than other salivary glands.

Coping with the Side Effects of Chemotherapy and Radiation Treatment

Dealing with dry mouth will likely be a temporary issue for patients who are coping with chemotherapy side effects, and a more long-lasting issue for patients facing radiation therapy side effects.

The lack of saliva resulting from the effects of chemotherapy and radiation treatment limits the ability of the mouth to clean itself and prepare food for digestion. Difficulties in speaking, swallowing and chewing can result. In addition, oral health can be damaged.

The following are some common methods of coping with radiation and chemotherapy side effects:

  • Apply fluoride gel to teeth at bedtime
  • Apply lip moisturizer frequently
  • Clean the mouth and teeth at least 4 times a day
  • Drink plenty of liquids
  • Floss daily
  • Limit coffee, tea and alcohol, which are dehydrating
  • Rinse mouth with water frequently (add one-half to one teaspoon baking soda if desired)
  • Suck on tart sugarless candies
  • Use fluoride toothpaste
  • Use a humidifier at night
  • Use saliva substitute.


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Merck Manuals Online Medical Library. (2007). Salivary gland disorders. Retrieved October 6, 2010, from

National Cancer Institute. (n.d.). Management of oral complications during and after chemotherapy and/or radiation therapy. Retrieved October 6, 2010, from

Quantum Health. (n.d.). Dry mouth and cancer therapy. Retrieved October 6, 2010, from