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Oral mucositis is a condition involving painful sores in the mouth, which can range from inflammation of the mouth tissue to severe ulcers. The inflammation will appear as a red, painful surface. Ulcers may occur on the tongue, the floor of the mouth, the insides of the cheeks, the roof of mouth or the gums. These lesions can extend from the oral cavity through the gastrointestinal tract, the organ system including the esophagus and stomach.

Who Gets It?

These lesions may develop as a side effect of cancer treatment, infections, medications or a weakened immune system. The drugs and radiation used in chemotherapy to treat cancer in the head and neck region are two major causes of this debilitating condition.

Up to 80 percent of patients undergoing a form of cancer therapy will develop oral mucositis. Once chemotherapy or radiation treatments have begun, this oral condition may develop within days, reaching the height of severity in two weeks. After the treatment has ended, it will often resolve.

The lesions in the mouth may be mild or severe. The more aggressive the cancer treatment, the more likely it is the side effects will be worse. The patient’s genetic makeup and type of cancer may also affect the severity of the lesions.

Treatment and Tested Medications

Any individual about to undergo cancer therapy should recognize that oral complications will likely be a side effect. Having good oral hygiene may help control the mucositis. Additionally, any problematic dental work that may irritate the mouth should be corrected as soon as possible.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has given palifermin, a drug designed to prevent and treat mucositis, its seal of approval. Other medications may be used to help the patient, including benzydamine hydrochloride nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory mouthwash. A doctor may advise controlling pain with morphine or the use of a compounded mouth rinse called magic mouthwash, which contains antibiotics, antifungals and topical steroids.

Help on the Horizon

The medical, dental and pharmaceutical industries recognize that this condition is so common that an effective treatment is necessary. Ongoing clinical trials are testing new relief methods, but further testing must be completed before these treatments become widely available.

If you will be undergoing chemotherapy or radiation to the head and neck region, make sure your physician and dentist coordinate to keep your mouth healthy through the treatment process.