Why Does Chemotherapy Cause Mouth Sores?

Find out how patients are finding relief from oral mucositis caused by chemotherapy

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Why Does Chemotherapy Cause Mouth Sores?

So many painful and unpleasant symptoms can crop up after a cancer diagnosis that it can be difficult to tell what to blame on the illness and what to blame on its treatments. Chemotherapy and radiation are notorious for causing a whole host of side effects that diminish a patient’s quality of life, from the telltale hair loss that has come to signify cancer, to the mouth sores, nerve pain, nausea, and other symptoms because of chemo’s toxic presence in the body. So why does chemo cause mouth sores and those other familiar effects, and is there anything to relieve mouth sores during chemo? Keep reading to find out.

What Causes Mouth Sores During Chemo?

Chemotherapy has long enjoyed a reputation for being the go-to treatment that oncologists recommend for patients with various kinds of cancer. That’s because the drugs used in chemotherapy are effective at hunting down and eliminating cells that rapidly divide and grow – the core trait shared by all types of cancer. This makes for an effective weapon against the disease in question, but because these drugs lack the ability to differentiate between diseased cells and healthy cells, other areas of the body that experience rapid cell division also get caught up in chemo’s attack.

These areas – your hair, nails, mouth, and bone marrow, to name a few – are often damaged by the very medications used to heal you; this is what causes the signature side effects frequently associated with chemo treatments. When the toxic, cancer-killing chemicals reach your mouth, they break down the mucous membranes and cause the formation of painful ulcers, sores, inflammation, dry mouth, and bleeding that collectively make up a condition called oral mucositis. As many as 40% of patients receiving standard chemo treatments will develop these symptoms, as well as up to 80% of high-dose chemo patients. (Source)

Common Complications of Oral Mucositis

Many patients who experience oral mucositis as a result of chemo or radiation treatments, list it as the most debilitating chemotherapy side effect they face during their battle with cancer. That’s because the mouth sores and other symptoms are more than just a nuisance; they can have a serious, even deadly impact on a patient. While the effects of the mucositis itself are not fatal, the complications they can lead to represent a substantial threat to the recovery process.

One of the chief concerns for patients with oral mucositis is the risk of developing a serious infection. The presence of open sores in the mouth – an environment that frequently interacts with foreign objects, such as food and beverages – leaves a patient constantly exposed to potential viral, fungal, and bacterial contaminants. This is especially dangerous for two reasons: Because the dry mouth that comes with mucositis leaves the mouth without an adequate supply of saliva, a primary defense against infections, and because chemo and radiation also tend to compromise a patient’s immune system. The combination of these vulnerabilities can make for a disastrous one-two punch if patients develop an infection, leading to delays in treatment and, in extreme cases, death.

In fact, a study published in 2008 found that a single-point increase in the severity of oral mucositis can lead, on average, to one extra day of fever; two to three more days of IV nutrition, narcotic therapy, and general hospitalization; more than double the risk of serious infection; and an almost four-fold rise in a patient’s 100-day mortality risk. As if these dangers weren’t enough, the collective cost of these developments can amount to more than $25,000 in additional medical bills, according to the study’s authors. These considerations underline the potential for even relatively minor mucositis symptoms to spiral into unsafe territory.

How to Prevent Chemo Mouth Sores with Cryotherapy

There is not yet a treatment that 100% guarantees protection against oral mucositis for those who are susceptible, but there is a method of prevention that has been quite effective for many patients. This method is called cryotherapy, a term for treatments that utilize cold temperatures to affect the body. This is the reason behind the ice chips and popsicles distributed in cancer centers around the country: The cold temperatures cause the blood vessels inside the mouth to shrink, limiting chemo drugs’ ability to reach vulnerable tissues. Because less of the drug is interacting with the mucous membranes, the damage is much less severe.

However, ice chips often fail to get the job done, in large part because they can only reach a small area in the mouth. Engineer, inventor, and cancer survivor David Yoskowitz experienced this firsthand, and so he came up with a solution: the Chemo Mouthpiece™. This simple oral cryotherapy device can cool the entire oral cavity uniformly, front to back and side to side, shrinking all the blood vessels in the area by lowering the temperature by as much as 30 degrees over the course of a half-hour treatment.

Oral Ice Pack for Relieving Mouth Sores Caused by Chemotherapy

Because the Chemo Mouthpiece™ was specially designed to help relieve the symptoms of oral mucositis, you can be confident that it is much more effective than a popsicle or bits of ice. Patients who are spared the ravages of oral mucositis report greater quality of life at a time when any relief can be helpful. Experience the difference for yourself. If you would like to learn more about how the Chemo Mouthpiece™ can help you or a loved one, visit us online or call (866) 461-7518 today.

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