A prospective study of salivary gland function in patients undergoing radiotherapy for squamous cell carcinoma of the oropharynx

Oral Surg Oral Med Oral Pathol Oral Radiol Endod. 2004 Feb;97(2):173-89. doi: 10.1016/s1079-2104(03)00473-6.


Objective: We sought to investigate the impact of head and neck cancer treatment on salivary function.

Study design: The study was conducted on 54 patients with advanced squamous cell carcinoma with confirmed (n = 50) or suspected (n = 4) primary oropharyngeal localization who were treated with radiation alone or in combination with surgery or chemotherapy, or both. The following groups were considered in the evaluation: 1, the entire pool of patients; 2, those undergoing surgery and those not undergoing surgery before radiation; 3, those undergoing resection and those not undergoing resection of the submandibular gland. The flow rates, pH, and buffering capacity were determined before, during, and up to 12 months after the completion of radiation.

Results: Head and neck surgery, particularly when submandibular gland resection was performed, had a negative impact on salivary flow rates but did not influence pH or buffering capacity. Nonetheless, the effect of surgery on salivary flow rates decreased progressively and disappeared at 3 to 6 months after radiotherapy. More than two thirds of the salivary output was lost during radiation treatment. All patients were experiencing salivary dysfunction at 1 year after completion of radiotherapy, with average decreases of 93% (P < .0001) and 95% (P < .0001) for whole resting salivary flow and whole stimulated salivary flow, respectively, compared with the preradiotherapy values. The buffering capacity decreased to 67% of its preradiotherapy value, and whole stimulated saliva became acidic.

Conclusions: The result of this study confirms that cancer treatment involving full-dose radiotherapy (RTH) to all major salivary glands for locally advanced squamous cell carcinoma of the oropharynx induces severe hyposalivation with alteration of salivary pH and buffering capacity. Head and neck surgery has a negative impact on salivary flow rates, especially when the submandibular gland is removed. However, surgery before irradiation is not a factor aggravating hyposalivation when postoperative radiotherapy includes all the major salivary glands.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Aged
  • Analysis of Variance
  • Buffers
  • Carcinoma, Squamous Cell / radiotherapy*
  • Carcinoma, Squamous Cell / surgery
  • Chemotherapy, Adjuvant
  • Female
  • Follow-Up Studies
  • Humans
  • Hydrogen-Ion Concentration
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Oropharyngeal Neoplasms / radiotherapy*
  • Oropharyngeal Neoplasms / surgery
  • Prospective Studies
  • Saliva / radiation effects
  • Salivary Glands / metabolism
  • Salivary Glands / radiation effects*
  • Secretory Rate / radiation effects
  • Submandibular Gland / surgery
  • Xerostomia / etiology


  • Buffers