Foods to Avoid If You Have Dry Mouth

Easing a Frustrating Side Effect of Radiation Therapy

Woman drinking a glass of water, part of, close up
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Dry mouth (xerostomia) is a common side effect of radiation therapy for people undergoing treatment for head and neck cancer. It is caused by damage to the salivary glands when they are exposed to the direct effects of radiation.

When a person has treatment-related dry mouth, eating can be a real challenge. With little or no saliva to help break down the food, it is often extremely difficult to chew or swallow.

Mouth sores and infections can frequently develop, while even talking can end up being a struggle for some.

Knowing what foods to avoid can help you minimize these symptoms while maintaining good daily nutrition and oral health. 

Here are the top 7 foods to avoid if you have treatment-related dry mouth:

Avoid Crusty Bread

Crusty bread can be extremely difficult to chew and swallow, even when used for sandwiches. It is best to forego the artisan sourdoughs and crunchy banquettes for softer varieties like hamburger rolls and traditional sliced bread. You can also try dipping bread into sauces or gravies to make it easier to eat.

Avoid Acidic Foods

Foods with acidic ingredients like lemon and vinegar can irritate the inside of the mouth, especially if you have sores. Avoid salad dressings with high vinegar content. Choose instead low-acid fruits and juices like apple juice or bananas. Low-fat sour cream with seasonings can serve as a tasty alternative to vinegar-based dressings.

Avoid Salty Foods

Like acidic foods, salty foods can irritate your mouth. Using low-sodium salt and reduced-sodium foods are the perfect ways to not only alleviate eating pains but reduce your sodium intake. When in doubt, compare food labels to see which product has less added salt.

Avoid Spicy Foods

Without saliva to protect the lining of your mouth, spicy foods can be incredibly irritating.

If you insist on indulging in a special Mexican or Thai meal, try to choose milder salsas and replace the jalapeños with things like sweet roasted peppers.

Avoid Sugary Foods and Drinks

One of the purposes that saliva serves is to break down sugars in food. People suffering from dry mouth are at an increased risk of developing tooth decay and other oral infections as a result of lower saliva production. Always make a point of avoiding foods and drinks that are either high in sugar or have added sugar. Instead choose water, flavored water, sugar-free drinks, and sugar-free desserts.

Avoid Dry Snack Foods

Dry snack foods like crackers and chips can be extremely difficult to swallow if you have dry mouth. Sharp edges on crackers and tortilla chips can often make things worse by cutting the delicate tissue of your inner cheek. You can remedy this, at least in part, by dipping crackers and chips in dips and sauces. If that doesn't work, you can soften the saltines by dipping them in milk or, better yet, switching to less crunchy foods.

Avoid Tough Cuts of Meats

Meats can be especially challenging for dry mouth sufferers, particularly if you're a steak-and-potatoes sort of person. The best rule of thumb is to buy softer, less sinewy meats like beef filet or pork filet.

The slow stewing of meats such as short ribs, shank, or pot roast can also give you the red meat fix you need while allowing easier chewing and swallowing, particularly when there is sauces or gravy. 

A Word From Verywell

Chronic dry mouth can be frustrating for people undergoing radiation treatment, turning what should be a daily pleasure into an on-going struggle.

But it's important to remember that it's a condition that can be managed. In addition to changing food habits, a number of pharmaceutical and over-the-counter remedies are available to help, including saliva stimulants and saliva substitutes.

Some patients find additional relief by propping their heads higher while sleeping or learning to breathe through their noses instead of their mouths. 

Speak with your doctor about what's right for you. In the end, it's not just about retaining the joy of eating; it's about maintaining the nutrition you need to support your recovery from cancer. 

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