Managing Side Effects of Radiation Therapy to the Head or Neck

Many people feel better when they know what to expect. Yet, there is no sure way to know to what extent head and neck cancer patients will have side effects with treatment. By managing side effects early on, patients can prevent other difficulties such as feeding tubes or infections. Fortunately, head and neck cancer patients at the MD Anderson Proton Therapy Center have access to a multidisciplinary team to help with any side effect.

Head and Neck radiation side effects

Patients who receive radiation therapy for head and neck cancers may experience side effects such as:

  • Dry mouth
  • Soreness or sores in the mouth or throat
  • Nausea
  • Changes in taste
  • Trouble swallowing
  • Tooth decay
  • Swelling in the gums, throat or neck
  • Changes in skin texture

Tips to help with side effects

There are ways to take care of your mouth, teeth, gums and throat during treatment. Below are some tips recommended by the American Cancer Society that may help with any mouth issues:

  • Avoid having spicy foods such as hot sauces, curry dishes and chili peppers.
  • Stay away from rough or crunchy foods. Instead try eating soft pasta, noodles or soups.
  • Do not eat or drink very hot or very cold foods or beverages.
  • Do not smoke, chew tobacco or drink alcohol as they can irritate the mouth.
  • Stay away from sugary snacks to avoid cavities.
  • Do not use a mouthwash that has alcohol. Ask your doctor or nurse for a good mouthwash to avoid dryness or irritation in the mouth.
  • Rinse your mouth with warm salt and soda water every 1 to 2 hours as needed. Mix ¼ teaspoon baking soda and 1/8-teaspoon salt with 1 cup warm water.
  • Sip cool drinks often throughout the day such as juices, flavored waters or milkshakes.
  • Try and eat sugar-free candy or chew gum to help keep your mouth moist.
  • To make it easier to eat, moisten food with gravies, sauces or broth.
  • Ask your doctor about medicines to help with any mouth issues.

It is also important to make sure to keep your mouth clean by brushing and flossing.

If you need help, don’t forget you can contact a dietitian at the Proton Therapy Center who can assist you with any concerns. The dietitian can help you choose foods and drinks that are the best for you during and after treatment. Also, the dietitian will discuss ways to get enough calories and protein especially when you do not feel like eating.

For many patients, the eating problems will get better. Even after finishing treatment, it can be helpful to talk with a dietitian.