Oral mouth discomfort is often seen in advanced illness and this can strongly affect quality of life. It is therefore important to keep a close watch on a patient’s oral hygiene and make it a priority in the plan of care. Oral health issues can include but are not limited to dysphagia, nutrition and taste problems, thick mucus, difficulty speaking, denture related issues, nausea and vomiting, stomatitis, hypersalivation, mucositis, thrush, and xerostoma.1
Assessment of the patient’s self-care ability is the first step. This will help determine the level of support a patient a will require. Not all patients need full care, a simple reminder or assistance by a caretaker may provide a basic approach in order to stay on the right path of the daily oral regimen. Once a care plan is established, there are measures that can be taken in order to avoid complications which include using a soft toothbrush, avoid mouthwashes that contain alcohol, rinse with saline or soda water, or use moist gauze to wipe cheeks after each meal.2,7 In addition, it is imperative to review medications in order to rule out any undesired oral mucosa effects associated with medication therapy.1 The goal is to maintain optimal oral hygiene with minimal discomfort. Most of the time a proactive approach is desired however in hospice we are often using a palliative oral care approach in symptoms that already exist. Once preventative and standard oral hygiene procedures have been properly assessed and addressed, it may become necessary to treat common complications.
Mucositis is a painful condition that often presents as red or white lesions in the mucosal lining of mouth, pharynx and digestive tract. In the late stages it is associated with fibrosis of connective tissue and hypovascularity. It is most often seen in patients who have received toxic chemotherapy and radiotherapy in head and neck cancer.1,6 Palliative treatment includes viscous lidocaine 2%, combination oral rinse (lidocaine, diphenhydramine, sorbitol and Mylanta), and chlorhexidine gluconate.1
Oropharyngeal Candidiasis (oral thrush) is a condition where white patches can be located in the mouth, inner cheeks, throat, palate and tongue and also is associated with pain. The tissue under the white patches is often raw and sore. The patient may have bad breath, unpleasant taste in the mouth, or dry mouth. Medications that can cause thrush include corticosteroids, antibiotics, and chemotherapy. Patients who have a higher prevalence of candidiasis are those who have cancer, HIV, uncontrolled diabetes, and smokers.3,7 Treatment includes antifungal mouthwash (nsystatin) or lozenges (clotrimazole). Administration of systemic fluconazole or itraconazole may be necessary in the management of more severe cases.1 It is important to remember that if a patient wears dentures they must also be treated separately with antifungal mouth rinse.5
Xerostoma is a symptom referring to dry mouth. Nearly 75% of hospice patients are affected by xerostoma, which is the most common cause of malnutrition in palliative patients. It is often associated with difficulty chewing, altered taste burning sensation, and thick saliva.1,3 Causes of xerostoma may include dehydration, vomiting or diarrhea, medications with anticholinergic activity, benzodiazepines and opioids, radiation, HIV/ AIDS, diabetes, renal failure, and Sjogrens syndrome.1,3 Treatment includes oral hydration such as humidifiers, stimulating salivary reflexes with medications like xylitol, administration of the cholinergic agonist pilocarpine, or using saliva substitutes such Biotene®.
Hypersalivation also known as sialorrhea is an increase in salivary flow. Patients who have neurological conditions such as Parkinson’s disease or amyotrophic lateral sclerosis may find it difficult to manage hypersalivation. Often medications are contraindicated in the treatment due to the side effects associated with anticholinergic drugs. If the patient’s quality of life is affected, anticholinergic medications such as atropine, glycopyrrolate, or scopolamine can be used.1
Dysphagia, or difficulty swallowing effectively, is a common symptom seen in hospice care. Food debris and saliva accumulate in the oral cavity which can increase bacterial growth. Inadequate oral hygiene at this point in care may increase the patient’s risk of developing aspiration.4 Therefore dysphagia may not only have a negative impact on oral health but also on the systemic health of a hospice patient. Despite minimizing debris in the oral cavity with adequate oral hygiene other preventative measures are necessary in order to avoid undesired complications. The most common non-invasive approaches include pleasure feeding, pureed diet, and crushing medications.1,4
Awareness of oral hygiene in the hospice patient should be an extension of the palliative care plan. Identifying oral health barriers, preventing major complications and treating oral conditions is the mainstay of managing oral hygiene. In conclusion comfort care and palliative treatment are established in oral care if a patient can eat and drink adequately with minimal pain or discomfort.
1. Mulk BS, Chintamaneni RL, Mpv P, Gummadapu S, Salvadhi SS. Palliative Dental Care- A Boon for Debilitating. Journal of Clinical and Diagnostic Research : JCDR. 2014;8(6):ZE01-ZE06. doi:10.7860/JCDR/2014/8898.4427.
2. Chen X, Chen H, Douglas C, Preisser JS, Shuman SK. Dental treatment intensity in frail older adults in the last year of life. Journal of the American Dental Association (1939). 2013;144(11):1234-1242.
3. Alt-Epping B, Nejad RK, Jung K, Groß U, Nauck F. Symptoms of the oral cavity and their association with local microbiological and clinical findings—a prospective survey in palliative care. Supportive Care in Cancer. 2012;20(3):531-537. doi:10.1007/s00520-011-1114-z.
4. Gallagher R. Swallowing difficulties: A prognostic signpost. Canadian Family Physician. 2011;57(12):1407-1409.
5. Saini R, Marawar P, Shete S, Saini S, Mani A. Dental Expression and Role in Palliative Treatment. Indian Journal of Palliative Care. 2009;15(1):26-29. doi:10.4103/0973-1075.53508.
6. Davies, Andrew, and Ilora G. Finlay, eds. Oral care in advanced disease. Oxford University Press, 2005.
7. O’Reilly M. Oral care of the critically ill: a review of the literature and guidelines for practice. Australian Critical Care. 2003;16(3):101-110. doi:10.1016/s1036-7314(03)80007-3.