Classification and external resources
ICD-9 528.00-528.04
DiseasesDB 29692
MeSH D052016

Mucositis is the painful inflammation and ulceration of the mucous membranes lining the digestive tract, usually as an adverse effect of chemotherapy and radiotherapy treatment for cancer.[1] Mucositis can occur anywhere along the gastrointestinal (GI) tract, but oral mucositis refers to the particular inflammation and ulceration that occurs in the mouth. Oral mucositis is a common and often debilitating complication of cancer treatment.[2]

Oral and gastrointestinal (GI) mucositis affects almost all patients undergoing high-dose chemotherapy and hematopoietic stem cell transplantation (HSCT), 80% of patients with malignancies of the head and neck receiving radiotherapy, and a wide range of patients receiving chemotherapy. Alimentary tract mucositis increases mortality and morbidity and contributes to rising health care costs.[3]

For most cancer treatment, about 5-15% of patients get mucositis. However, with 5-fluorouracil (5-FU), up to 40% get mucositis, and 10-15% get grade 3-4 oral mucositis.[4] Irinotecan is associated with severe GI mucositis in over 20% of patients. 75-85% of bone marrow transplantation recipients experience mucositis, of which oral mucositis is the most common and most debilitating, especially when melphalan is used. In grade 3 oral mucositis, the patient is unable to eat solid food, and in grade 4, the patient is unable to consume liquids as well.[5]

Radiotherapy to the head and neck or to the pelvis or abdomen is associated with Grade 3 and Grade 4 oral or GI mucositis, respectively, often exceeding 50% of patients. Among patients undergoing head and neck radiotherapy, pain and decreased oral function may persist long after the conclusion of therapy. Fractionated radiation dosage increases the risk of mucositis to > 70% of patients in most trials. Oral mucositis is particularly profound and prolonged among HSCT recipients who receive total-body irradiation.[6]


Signs and symptoms

Cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy usually become symptomatic four to five days after beginning treatment, reaching a peak at around day 10, and then slowly improving over the course of a few weeks. Mucositis associated with radiotherapy usually appears at the end of the second week of treatment and may last for six to eight weeks.

As a result of cell death in reaction to chemo- or radio-therapy, the mucosal lining of the mouth becomes thin, may slough off and then become red, inflamed and ulcerated. The ulcers may become covered by a yellowish white fibrin clot called a pseudomembrane. Peripheral erythema is usually present. Ulcers may range from 0.5 cm to greater than 4 cm. Oral mucositis can be severely painful. The degree of pain is usually related to the extent of the tissue damage. Pain is often described as a burning sensation accompanied by reddening. Due to pain, the patient may experience trouble speaking, eating, or even opening the mouth.

Dysgeusia, or an alteration in taste perception, is common, especially for those who are receiving concomitant radiation therapy to the neck and mouth area. "Taste blindness," or an altered sense of taste, is a temporary condition that occurs because of effects on taste buds that are mostly located in the tongue. Sometimes, only partial recovery of taste occurs. Common complaints are of food tasting too sweet or too bitter or of a continuous metallic taste.


The pathophysiology of mucositis can be divided into its 5 stages; including an initiation phase, a message generation phase, a signaling and amplification phase, an ulceration phase, and a healing phase. Different cytokines are responsible for the various stages. The initiation phase is caused by the production of free radicals caused by the chemo- or radio- therapy, which damages cell DNA. This causes the production of cell transcription factors such as NF-κB, which upregulates inflammatory cytokines, marking the beginning of the ulceration phase. Main inflammatory cytokines involved are IL-1 and TNF-alpha. During the healing phase, epithelial cells are attracted to the site of the ulcer and begin the re-epithelialization of the ulcers.


Diagnosis is based on the symptoms the patient is experiencing and the appearance of the tissues of the mouth following chemotherapy, bone marrow transplants or radiotherapy. Red burn-like sores or ulcers throughout the mouth is enough to diagnose mucositis.

The severity of oral mucositis can be evaluated using several different assessment tools. Two of the most commonly used are the World Health Organization (WHO) Oral Toxicity score[7] and the National Cancer Institute Common Toxicity Criteria (NCI-CTC) for Oral Mucositis.[8] While the NCI system has separate scores for appearance (erythema and ulceration) and function (pain and ability to eat solids, liquids, or nothing by mouth), the WHO score combines both elements into a single score that grades the severity of the condition from 0 (no oral mucositis) to 4 (swallowing not possible such that patient needs supplementary nutrition). Another scale developed in 1999, the Oral Mucositis Assessment Scale (OMAS) has been shown to be highly reproducible between observers, responsive over time, and accurate in recording symptoms associated with mucositis. The OMAS provides an objective assessment of oral mucositis based on assessment of the appearance and extent of redness and ulceration in various areas of the mouth.[9]


Treatment of mucositis is mainly supportive. Oral hygiene is the mainstay of treatment; patients are encouraged to clean their mouth every four hours and at bedtime, more often if the mucositis becomes worse. Water-soluble jellies can be used to lubricate the mouth. Salt mouthwash can soothe the pain and keep food particles clear so as to avoid infection. Patients are also encouraged to drink plenty of liquids, at least three liters a day, and avoid alcohol. Citrus fruits, alcohol, and foods that are hot are all known to aggravate mucositis lesions. Medicinal mouthwashes may be used such as Chlorhexidine gluconate and viscous Lidocain for relief of pain. Palifermin is a human KGF (keratinocyte growth factor) that has shown to enhance epithelial cell proliferation, differentiation, and migration. Experimental therapies have been reported, including the use of cytokines and other modifiers of inflammation (eg, IL-1, IL-11, TGF-beta3), amino acid supplementation (eg, glutamine), vitamins, colony-stimulating factors, cryotherapy, and laser therapy. Symptomatic relief of the pain of oral mucositis may be provided by barrier protection agents such as concentrated oral gel products (eg Gelclair). Caphosol is a mouth rinse which has been shown to prevent and treat oral mucositis caused by radiation and high dose chemotherapy. MuGard™ is a FDA-approved mucoadhesive oral protectant, developed by Access Pharmaceuticals, Inc., that is designed to form a protective hydrogel coating over the oral mucosa while a patient is undergoing chemotherapy and/or radiotherapy cancer treatments to the head and neck.[10] Additionally, the efficacy of MuGard™ for the prevention or treatment of mucositis has been tested by a prospective, randomized clinical trial in which 43% of head and neck cancer patients using MuGard™ prophylactically never got oral mucositis. NeutraSal® is an FDA-approved calcium phosphate mouth rinse which has been shown in a open-label, observational registry trial to prevent and reduce the severity of oral mucositis caused by radiation and high dose chemotherapy. In the trial, 56% of the radiotherapy patients reported 0 (WHO score) or no mucositis, which is significantly lower than historical rates.


Sores or ulcerations can become infected by virus, bacteria or fungus. Pain and loss of taste perception makes it more difficult to eat, which leads to weight loss. Ulcers may act as a site for local infection and a portal of entry for oral flora that, in some instances, may cause septicemia (especially in immunosuppressed patients). Approximately half of all patients who receive chemotherapy develop such severe oral mucositis that becomes dose-limiting such that the patient's cancer treatment must be modified, compromising the prognosis.


  1. ^ Ridge JA, Glisson BS, Lango MN, et al. "Head and Neck Tumors" in Pazdur R, Wagman LD, Camphausen KA, Hoskins WJ (Eds) Cancer Management: A Multidisciplinary Approach. 11 ed. 2008.
  2. ^ Oral Mucositis in Cancer Therapy. Sonis ST. J Supportive Oncology. Nov/Dec 2004; Vol 2 (Suppl 3): pp3-8
  3. ^ Cancer. 1 May 2004;100(9 Suppl):2026-46. Clinical practice guidelines for the prevention and treatment of cancer therapy-induced oral and gastrointestinal mucositis. Rubenstein EB, et al. [PMID15108223] Free full text Expert panel reviewed literature published January 1966 to May 2002, to create evidence-based guidelines for the Multinational Association of Supportive Care in Cancer and the International Society for Oral Oncology.
  4. ^ Rubenstein
  5. ^ Rubenstein
  6. ^ Rubenstein
  7. ^ World Health Organization. Handbook for reporting results of cancer treatment. Geneva, Switzerland: World Health Organization; 1979:15-22.
  8. ^ National Cancer Institute Common Toxicity Criteria. Version 2.0, June 1, 1999
  9. ^ Sonis ST, Eilers JP, Epstein JB, et al. Validation of a new scoring system for the assessment of clinical trial research of oral mucositis induced by radiation or chemotherapy. Mucositis Study Group. Cancer. 1999;85:2103-2113.
  10. ^ "'MuGard™ Clinical Data'.". 

General sources

Mucositis Resource Center of the MASCC/ISOO Mucositis Study Group. Medical journal articles, guidelines, recommendations, and slides and videos from conference presentations.

Wikimedia Foundation. 2010.

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Look at other dictionaries:

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  • Mucositis — Inflammation of the mucous membranes lining the digestive tract from the mouth on down to the anus. Mucositis is a common side effect of chemotherapy and of radiotherapy that involves any part of the digestive tract. Mucositis affects the rapidly …   Medical dictionary

  • mucositis — noun A complication of some cancer therapies in which the lining of the digestive system becomes inflamed. Often seen as sores in the mouth …   Wiktionary

  • mucositis — A complication of some cancer therapies in which the lining of the digestive system becomes inflamed. Often seen as sores in the mouth …   English dictionary of cancer terms

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  • oral mucositis — noun inflammation of the mucus membranes of the mouth …   Wiktionary

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