Radiation therapy linked to dry mouth in elderly patients with head and neck cancers

Research Activities, November 2012, No. 387

Head and neck cancer (HNC) may be treated by a combination of radiation therapy (RT) and chemotherapy, in addition to surgery. A common side effect associated with RT for tumors arising in the head and neck region is xerostomia (dry mouth), a potentially serious post-treatment complication that can affect speech, chewing, and swallowing and lead to gum infections, cavities, and loss of teeth.

A new study found that patients receiving RT either with or without chemotherapy had a higher cumulative incidence of developing xerostomia than those who had neither RT nor chemotherapy (5.6 percent and 3.8 percent, respectively vs. 0.5 percent), according to a team of Texas-based researchers. The risk of xerostomia was regardless of tumor stage at presentation, anatomic primary tumor site, and whether primary cancer treatment included surgery. It was higher in some subgroups of patients, namely in women with distant stage disease or in those with poorly differentiated localized tumors. The risk of xerostomia was lower in patients 80 years or older with the anatomic tumor site at the salivary gland. The risk of xerostomia reported in this study was lower than in other studies.

The researchers believe this was possibly due to patients with minor degrees of xerostomia not reporting symptoms to their providers. Another factor may be that the occurrence of xerostomia for purposes of this study required that it be reported on at least two different occasions. The study included 10,397 elderly men and women insured by Medicare who were diagnosed with HNC. The study was supported by the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (HS16743).

See "Risk of xerostomia in association with the receipt of radiation therapy in older patients with head and neck cancer" by Chih-Chin Liu, M.S., Rui Xia, M.S., Ashleigh Gudanolo, M.D., and others in the American Journal of Therapeutics 18, pp. 206-215, 2011.

MWS

Current as of November 2012
Internet Citation: Radiation therapy linked to dry mouth in elderly patients with head and neck cancers: Research Activities, November 2012, No. 387. November 2012. Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, Rockville, MD. http://www.ahrq.gov/news/newsletters/research-activities/12nov/1112RA10.html