Radiation therapy to treat oral, nasal head or neck cancer?

Fighting the cancer is a tough job, and the powerful effects of radiation that kill the cancer cells can also have unwanted side-effects on the surrounding tissues.  If you will or have been treated with radiation to the face, you should be prepared to prevent and treat some of the common complications that occur.  Three of the most common side-effects from radiation to the face or jaw are:
  • Trismus--Limited oral opening.  Develops slowly over the first year after radiation therapy.
  • Xerostomia--Dry mouth, lack of saliva.  Caused by damage to the salivary glands from the radiation.
  • Radiation burns on the skin and mucosa lining of the mouth and nose. 


Trismus is when you have limited motion of your jaw, and is sometimes referred to as "lock jaw". Trismus is caused by the development of fibrosis from the radiation, where fibrotic, scar-like tissue fills in the area slowly over the 6-9 months after radiation therapy. This fibrotic tissue is stiff and can act like a strap holding your mouth closed.  Trismus from radiation is very common in patients with oral or nasal cancer.  However, it can be prevented and treated by doing assisted stretching of the mouth and jaw with a jaw motion rehab system like the OraStretch press.  Here are some links to learn more about:


Xerostomia, or dry mouth, is also a common side-effect from radiation to the mouth and salivary glands.   In special cases, there are a few options for your doctor to help prevent xerostomia with surgery or drugs to prevent damage to the salivary glands.  However, you may still suffer from xerostomia after radiation.  There are a number of available oral washes, like Biotene, available to treat and minimize the problems from xerostomia; but many patients prefer simply sipping on water or ice chips to help.  Here are some links to learn more about:

Radiation Burns

Radiation burns are similar to sun burns caused by the beam of radiation damaging your skin, mouth and tongue.  These "burns" generally show up a couple days after your treatment.   On your cheeks and skin, the "burns" are like actual sun burns.  To manage these burns, use lotions to moisturize the skin, wash with warm, not hot water, and avoid the sun.  Also, do not use heating pads, ice packs, or bandages, as these can further damage the skin and prolong the "burn."  Inside your mouth, the tissue is mucosal membrane, and these burns can cause pain and sores that is called mucositis.  Mucositis is painful and difficult to treat.  A simple treatment for mucositis is to swish with a weak salt water rinse.  Try to avoid anything with alcohol, as it can sting and cause further pain.  It is also recommended to visit you dentist before treatment, stop smoking, avoid spicy and crunchy foods, and hot or cold foods might be painful, as well.  Overall, radiation burns should be temporary, as you body slowly heals the tissues.