Pharmacological interventions for preventing dry mouth and salivary gland dysfunction following radiotherapy

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Background Salivary gland dysfunction is an 'umbrella' term for the presence of either xerostomia (subjective sensation of dryness), or salivary gland hypofunction (reduction in saliva production). It is a predictable side effect of radiotherapy to the head and neck region, and is associated with a significant impairment of quality of life. A wide range of pharmacological interventions, with varying mechanisms of action, have been used for the prevention of radiation-induced salivary gland dysfunction. Objectives To assess the effects of pharmacological interventions for the prevention of radiation-induced salivary gland dysfunction. Search methods Cochrane Oral Health's Information Specialist searched the following databases: Cochrane Oral Health's Trials Register (to 14 September 2016); the Cochrane Central Register of Controlled Trials (CENTRAL; 2016, Issue 8) in the Cochrane Library (searched 14 September 2016); MEDLINE Ovid (1946 to 14 September 2016); Embase Ovid (1980 to 14 September 2016); CINAHL EBSCO (Cumulative Index to Nursing and Allied Health Literature; 1937 to 14 September 2016); LILACS BIREME Virtual Health Library (Latin American and Caribbean Health Science Information database; 1982 to 14 September 2016); Zetoc Conference Proceedings (1993 to 14 September 2016); and OpenGrey (1997 to 14 September 2016). We searched the US National Institutes of Health Ongoing Trials Register ( and the World Health Organization International Clinical Trials Registry Platform for ongoing trials. No restrictions were placed on the language or date of publication when searching the electronic databases. Selection criteria We included randomised controlled trials, irrespective of their language of publication or publication status. Trials included participants of all ages, ethnic origin and gender, scheduled to receive radiotherapy on its own or in addition to chemotherapy to the head and neck region. Participants could be outpatients or inpatients. We included trials comparing any pharmacological agent regimen, prescribed prophylactically for salivary gland dysfunction prior to or during radiotherapy, with placebo, no intervention or an alternative pharmacological intervention. Comparisons of radiation techniques were excluded. Data collection and analysis We used standard methodological procedures expected by Cochrane. Main results We included 39 studies that randomised 3520 participants; the number of participants analysed varied by outcome and time point. The studies were ordered into 14 separate comparisons with meta-analysis only being possible in three of those. We found low-quality evidence to show that amifostine, when compared to a placebo or no treatment control, might reduce the risk of moderate to severe xerostomia (grade 2 or higher on a 0 to 4 scale) at the end of radiotherapy (risk ratio (RR) 0.35, 95% confidence interval (CI) 0.19 to 0.67; P = 0.001, 3 studies, 119 participants), and up to three months after radiotherapy (RR 0.66, 95% CI 0.48 to 0.92; P = 0.01, 5 studies, 687 participants), but there is insufficient evidence that the effect is sustained up to 12 months after radiotherapy (RR 0.70, 95% CI 0.40 to 1.23; P = 0.21, 7 studies, 682 participants). We found very low-quality evidence that amifostine increased unstimulated salivary flow rate up to 12 months after radiotherapy, both in terms of mg of saliva per 5 minutes (mean difference (MD) 0.32, 95% CI 0.09 to 0.55; P = 0.006, 1 study, 27 participants), and incidence of producing greater than 0.1 g of saliva over 5 minutes (RR 1.45, 95% CI 1.13 to 1.86; P = 0.004, 1 study, 175 participants). However, there was insufficient evidence to show a difference when looking at stimulated salivary flow rates. There was insufficient (very low-quality) evidence to show that amifostine compromised the effects of cancer treatment when looking at survival measures. There was some very low-quality evidence of a small benefit for amifostine in terms of quality of life (10-point scale) at 12 months after radiotherapy (MD 0.70, 95% CI 0.20 to 1.20; P = 0.006, 1 study, 180 participants), but insufficient evidence at the end of and up to three months postradiotherapy. A further study showed no evidence of a difference at 6, 12, 18 and 24 months postradiotherapy. There was low-quality evidence that amifostine is associated with increases in: vomiting (RR 4.90, 95% CI 2.87 to 8.38; P < 0.00001, 5 studies, 601 participants); hypotension (RR 9.20, 95% CI 2.84 to 29.83; P = 0.0002, 3 studies, 376 participants); nausea (RR 2.60, 95% CI 1.81 to 3.74; P < 0.00001, 4 studies, 556 participants); and allergic response (RR 7.51, 95% CI 1.40 to 40.39; P = 0.02, 3 studies, 524 participants). We found insufficient evidence (that was of very low quality) to determine whether or not pilocarpine performed better or worse than a placebo or no treatment control for the outcomes: xerostomia, salivary flow rate, survival, and quality of life. There was some low-quality evidence that pilocarpine was associated with an increase in sweating (RR 2.98, 95% CI 1.43 to 6.22; P = 0.004, 5 studies, 389 participants). We found insufficient evidence to determine whether or not palifermin performed better or worse than placebo for: xerostomia (low quality); survival (moderate quality); and any adverse effects. There was also insufficient evidence to determine the effects of the following interventions: biperiden plus pilocarpine, Chinese medicines, bethanechol, artificial saliva, selenium, antiseptic mouthrinse, antimicrobial lozenge, polaprezinc, azulene rinse, and Venalot Depot (coumarin plus troxerutin). Authors' conclusions There is some low-quality evidence to suggest that amifostine prevents the feeling of dry mouth in people receiving radiotherapy to the head and neck (with or without chemotherapy) in the short- (end of radiotherapy) to medium-term (three months postradiotherapy). However, it is less clear whether or not this effect is sustained to 12 months postradiotherapy. The benefits of amifostine should be weighed against its high cost and side effects. There was insufficient evidence to show that any other intervention is beneficial.
Original languageEnglish
JournalCochrane Database of Systematic Reviews
Early online date31 Jul 2017
Publication statusPublished - 2017


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