Is Pilocarpine Effective in Preventing Radiation-Induced Xerostomia? A Systematic Review and Meta-analysis

Int J Radiat Oncol Biol Phys. 2016 Mar 1;94(3):503-11. doi: 10.1016/j.ijrobp.2015.11.012. Epub 2015 Nov 10.


Purpose: To evaluate the efficacy of concomitant administration of pilocarpine on radiation-induced xerostomia in patients with head and neck cancers.

Methods and materials: The PubMed, Web of Science, Cochrane Library, and ClinicalTrials were searched to identify randomized, controlled trials studying the effect of concomitant administration of pilocarpine for radiation-induced xerostomia. Included trials were systematically reviewed, and quantifiable outcomes were pooled for meta-analysis. Outcomes of interest included salivary flow, clinician-rated xerostomia grade, patient-reported xerostomia scoring, quality of life, and adverse effects.

Results: Six prospective, randomized, controlled trials in 8 articles were included in this systematic review. The total number of patients was 369 in the pilocarpine group and 367 in the control group. Concomitant administration of pilocarpine during radiation could increase the unstimulated salivary flow rate in a period of 3 to 6 months after treatment, and also reduce the clinician-rated xerostomia grade. Patient-reported xerostomia was not significantly impacted by pilocarpine in the initial 3 months but was superior at 6 months. No significant difference of stimulated salivary flow rate could be confirmed between the 2 arms. Adverse effects of pilocarpine were mild and tolerable.

Conclusions: The concomitant administration of pilocarpine during radiation increases unstimulated salivary flow rate and reduces clinician-rated xerostomia grade after radiation. It also relieves patients' xerostomia at 6 months and possibly at 12 months. However, pilocarpine has no effect on stimulated salivary flow rate.

Publication types

  • Meta-Analysis
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review
  • Systematic Review

MeSH terms

  • Cholinergic Agonists / adverse effects
  • Cholinergic Agonists / therapeutic use*
  • Head and Neck Neoplasms / radiotherapy*
  • Humans
  • Pilocarpine / adverse effects
  • Pilocarpine / therapeutic use*
  • Prospective Studies
  • Quality of Life
  • Randomized Controlled Trials as Topic
  • Salivation / drug effects*
  • Salivation / radiation effects
  • Xerostomia / etiology
  • Xerostomia / prevention & control*


  • Cholinergic Agonists
  • Pilocarpine