What Causes Oral Mucositis in Cancer Patients?

When a patient is diagnosed with cancer, he anticipates experiencing a variety of side effects from the treatment, including things such as nausea and hair loss. One side effect that isn’t as well-known, yet is incredibly common, is a condition called oral mucositis. Let’s talk about what causes oral mucositis in cancer patients.

What Is Oral Mucositis?

Mucositis is a condition typified by the inflammation and infection of the mucosa, thin membranes that line the digestive tract beginning at the mouth and traveling all the way through the body. As you know if you have ever burned your mouth while eating hot food, the skin on the inside of your mouth is extremely thin and delicate, and it can be damaged easily.

Mucositis can occur at any point in the digestive tract, but it most commonly occurs in the mouth and throat. Some of the symptoms of mucositis include:

  • Inflammation of the mouth, characterized by gums and skin taking on a shiny, red appearance
  • Soreness in the mouth and throat
  • Difficulty and pain while chewing
  • Difficulty and pain while swallowing
  • The presence of a thick, white layer of mucous, sometimes as thick as one millimeter, on the inside of the mouth and on the tongue
  • Open sores, called ulcers, on the mucosa

While anybody can get mucositis, it is an extremely common side effect in cancer patients, particularly those receiving radiation of the head and neck, high-dose chemotherapy, and full-body irradiation.

Why Do Cancer Patients Get Mucositis?

For patients who have cancer, treatments such as chemotherapy and radiation can be life-saving. Without them, malignancies could grow unchecked in their bodies. The quality of cancer cells is such that they grow rapidly, stealing nutrients and resources from healthy cells in the body. Cancer treatments destroy those cells.

The down-side of chemotherapy and radiation is that we do not yet have the technology to target them only at malignant cells, so healthy cells are often affected, too. As mentioned above, the skin of the mucosa is especially prone to injury, and is thus very likely to be harmed by radiation and chemotherapy.

The first cells to be damaged by cancer treatments are the epithelial cells, which line the outside of internal organs in the body and help protect the mucosa. Once they are gone, the cells of the mucosa and submucosa (the layer underneath the mucosa) can be damaged. The absence of epithelial cells makes the mucosa subject to inflammation.

As cancer treatments continue and the cells sustain more damage, they become highly susceptible to both inflammation and infection. Cancer treatments can dry out the mouth, making the mucosa even more vulnerable. If you have ever experienced dry, cracked lips during the winter, you know how easy it is for dryness to injure the mucosa.

Left unchecked during treatment, mucositis can advance. In the early stages, the primary symptom is inflammation and some pain. However, in the later stages, the pain can become extreme. If ulcers form in the mouth, patients may find chewing and swallowing to be intensely painful or even impossible.

Mucositis has four stages. In the early stages, cancer treatments can continue – although care must be taken to treat the mucositis and prevent it from progressing. When mucositis reaches Stage 3 or Stage 4, it is necessary to suspend chemotherapy or radiation to give the mucosa time to heal. It goes without saying that halting cancer treatments is not good for the patient. For that reason, managing and treating mucositis is a priority for oncologists and patients alike.

How to Manage Mucositis

The good news for cancer patients is that it is that there are some very simple things they can do to manage mucositis. A visit to the dentist prior to treatment can ensure that the mouth is in good health and free of unhealthy bacteria. Patients who weardentures should also check the fit of their dentures. If there are gaps between dentures and gums, food particles can accumulate there and irritate the mucosa.

Once treatment has started, patients can keep their mouths lubricated by doing simple things such as sucking on ice chips during treatment. Alternatively, they can chew sugar-free gum or suck on a sugar-free hard candy. Sour flavors tend to be best because they promote the production of saliva, which keeps the mucosa moist.

Patients should keep an eye out for the early symptoms of mucositis and let their doctors know if they experience any inflammation or discomfort. The sooner you begin treatment of mucositis, the less likely it is that it will progress to the point where treatments must be halted.

While home remedies such as rinsing with salt water or a mixture of baking soda and water can be helpful, studies suggest that the most effective way of treating mucositis is to supplement the body’s supply of L-glutamine.

Glutamine is an amino acid, one that plays a key role in the protection and regeneration of cells. It is naturally abundant in the body, but research has shown that many cancer patients end up with a deficiency of glutamine. Replenishing the body’s supply gives it the weapons it needs to fight back against mucositis and repair the damaged cells.

While glutamine is widely available as a supplement in various forms, for oral mucositis the most effective way to take it is as a powder mixed with water. The reason that a liquid suspension is recommended is that the solution can first be swished around the mouth, bringing it into direct contact with the mucosa; and second, that the swallowed liquid is easily absorbed by the body, boosting its natural healing power.

At Healios, we believe that no cancer patient should have to stop treatment due to late-stage mucositis. The science and patents behind our exclusive formula, Healios Glutamine Complex, are the discovery of Dr. Peter M. Anderson, who noticed the way mucositis affected his patients and wanted to come up with a solution. To learn more and order your supply, please click here.