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For some, the first signs of leukemia show up in an unexpected place: the mouth. In fact, a dentist may be the first doctor to detect the cancer.

Leukemia, as well as subsequent chemotherapy, has a distinct effect on dental health, which means that dental hygiene should be a priority when you’re fighting the disease. There are several dental symptoms to look out for when you have leukemia, as well as ways to prevent any problems.

How Leukemia Affects Dental Health

One of the first signs of leukemia can be gingivitis, or swelling and bleeding gums. Once cancer treatment begins, dental problems can get worse. Chemotherapy alters the blood and makes it harder for your blood to clot, so bleeding becomes a problem, Silverman says. Your mouth may also become more sensitive and it’s more susceptible to infections from bacteria that originate in the mouth, he says. And if someone is experiencing nausea and vomiting due to chemotherapy, the acidity of the vomit in the mouth can cause problems with the teeth.

Protecting Your Mouth

You can prevent these problems with good dental hygiene, and there are some things you can do to help with a sore or sensitive mouth:

Get dental work before treatment. Because chemotherapy can cause bleeding, it’s best to get any dental work you need before you start treatment. Be sure to keep your dentist informed of your diagnosis and your treatment schedule.

Keep up with dental appointments during treatment. Continue to see your dentist for cleanings while you have leukemia and during treatment to keep your mouth healthy.

Be diligent about brushing and flossing at home. To keep your mouth in tip-top shape, brush and floss in the morning, before bed, and after meals.

Treat infections promptly. If you do develop an infection in your mouth, be sure to see your doctor and get treated with an antibiotic as soon as possible.

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