Introduction 

Mucositis is a condition characterised by pain and inflammation of the surface of the mucous membrane.

The mucous membrane is the soft layer of tissue lining the digestive system from the mouth to the anus.

Mucositis is often divided into two main types, including:

  • oral mucositis, which occurs inside the mouth and can cause painful mouth ulcers (sores) to develop
  • gastrointestinal mucositis, which occurs inside the digestive system and often causes diarrhoea

It is also possible for mucositis to affect the lining of the anus – a condition known as proctitis.

Read more about the symptoms of mucositis.

Why does mucositis happen?

Mucositis develops as a side effect of radiotherapy and chemotherapy when it is aimed at cancerous cells around the mucous membrane.

Patients receiving radiotherapy for other cancers, such as breast cancer, will not usually develop mucositis because the therapy is not targeted near the mucous membrane.

The radiation used during radiotherapy and the powerful medicines used in chemotherapy damage the cells of the membrane and cause the symptoms of mucositis. 

If you are undergoing cancer treatment that could potentially cause mucositis, you will be checked regularly for the condition. Mucositis can usually be diagnosed after an examination or a description of your symptoms.

Read more about the causes of mucositis and diagnosing mucositis.

Who is affected?

Mucositis is a common side effect of cancer treatment. Overall, 40% of people who have chemotherapy as part of their cancer treatment will develop some degree of mucositis.

Mucositis is more common among certain types of cancer. For example, it is estimated that more than 85% of people who have radiotherapy for head or neck cancer will develop mouth problems, such as oral mucositis.

About 75% of people who receive high-dose chemotherapy because they are undergoing a stem cell transplant (more commonly known as a bone marrow transplant) will develop oral mucositis.

How is mucositis treated?

The main aim of treatment for oral mucositis is to prevent infection and reduce any pain. This is done by practising good oral hygiene and using painkillers.

Treatments are also available to reduce the symptoms of oral mucositis, such as low-level laser therapy (LLLT) and a medication called palifermin.

Treatment for gastrointestinal mucositis aims to reduce the main symptoms of the condition, such as diarrhoea and inflammation. Treatment includes a combination of medicines and self-care measures.

The symptoms of mucositis should begin to improve a few weeks after chemotherapy or radiotherapy has finished, although it can sometimes take longer.

Read more about treating mucositis.

Complications

The most serious cases of mucositis can lead to a number of associated health complications.

Many people with mucositis find it painful to swallow food and require alternative feeding methods, such as a feeding tube.

Also, mouth ulcers can become infected with bacteria. The infection can spread to the blood and then on to other organs. This is known as sepsis and can be life-threatening.

Read more about the complications of mucositis.

Can mucositis be prevented?

It is not always possible to prevent mucositis, but some treatments can be taken during radiotherapy or chemotherapy to try to reduce the severity of mucositis or how long it lasts. 

Treatments include medications such as palifermin, benzydamine, sulfasalazine and amifostine.

Read more about preventing mucositis.

Video: chemotherapy

A doctor specialising in cancer explains the chemotherapy process and patients talk about their own experiences.

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Page last reviewed: 30/10/2014

Next review due: 30/10/2016