Ice Chips During Chemo - Why & How they Work

Cryotherapy, or ice therapy, is a common treatment used to help relieve pain and reduce inflammation. Cryotherapy can help with many conditions, including arthritis, injuries, and mouth sores caused by chemotherapy. Here, we will explore how and why ice chips work and how you can make the most of them during cancer treatment.

What Is Cryotherapy? Does it Work?

Cryotherapy is a treatment that uses ice or cold temperatures to help relieve pain. In addition, it has been studied for its ability to aid in preventing and managing oral mucositis. Cryotherapy, or ice therapy, comes in many different forms, from ice baths and frozen gloves to eating ice chips or using cold mouthpieces. According to the Oncology Nursing Society, patients are instructed to "suck on ice or hold ice-cold water in the mouth before, during, and after treatment" in order to help minimize the side effects of chemotherapy that affect the mouth and throat. 

The use of ice chips is known to work well. A study published in the Journal of Oral Pathology and Medicine found that cryotherapy could reduce the severity of oral mucositis in patients receiving chemotherapy. Treatment centers often pass out ice chips to help patients proactively manage this side effect. However, it's important to note that cryotherapy won't work to prevent mucositis from radiation. 

How Do Ice Chips Help Prevent Chemotherapy-Associated Mouth Sores?

Ice chips help prevent chemotherapy-associated mouth sores because they act as a natural vasoconstrictor, meaning that they cause the blood vessels in your mouth to narrow. As such, the cold helps to limit and at times prevent chemotherapy agents from reaching the mouth and causing damage that results in mucositis or mouth sores. If you are receiving chemotherapy for head or neck cancer, be sure to check with your medical team before using ice chips, particularly before and during treatment. You don't want to prevent the chemo agents needed to fight cancer from reaching their intended place. 

How Does Oral Mucositis Affect A Person's Ability to Eat and Drink?

Oral mucositis affects a person's ability to eat and drink by causing pain and discomfort. When oral mucositis is left untreated, it can progress from redness and mild soreness to very large ulcerations that make it painful to put anything into the mouth, including liquids. Severe ulcerations can be very similar to open wounds and can cause infections that spread through the mouth and throat quickly. These infections can be so painful that they further inhibit a patient's eating and drinking ability. 

Not being able to eat or drink for long periods of time can weaken the body to the point of having to pause cancer treatment until the body heals enough to continue. This can lead to prolonged stays in the hospital, the need to be fed through a tube, and higher costs for you and your family.

How Do Ice Chips Help During Chemo?

Ice chips not only help with mouth sore prevention during chemo, but they can also help numb the affected area, relieving any pain accumulated before or after treatment. Furthermore, studies have found that ice chips significantly reduce the "frequency and duration of oral sores following chemotherapy treatment." In addition, cold temperatures help reduce inflammation of the sensitive tissues lining the mouth and throat, making them less susceptible to swelling that can occur during treatment. 

In addition to reducing inflammation and numbing, ice chips can also provide hydration to patients having trouble finding food and drink appealing. With many patients experiencing oral mucositis that's bad enough to impair eating and drinking during treatment, consuming ice chips before, during, and after chemo can help with hydration.

Using Ice During Chemotherapy to Prevent Mouth Sores

Ice chips are frequently used as a low-cost option to help with chemo side effects, including mouth sores, dry mouth, and even nausea – and they're often well tolerated by patients. Ice chips are very accessible and, being a natural solution, they don't carry the risk of giving you additional side effects, as is the case with Palifermin. They can also be personalized to your taste, as ice chips can be made from tap water, distilled water, or even flavored water, if tolerated.

Using Ice Chips While Avoiding Cold Items

While ice chips are often used as a way to minimize the effects of mouth sores during treatment, there are a few treatments, like oxaliplatin, that instruct patients to avoid cold drinks or use ice. This is due to tissues and nerves in the mouth sometimes having a dramatic and painful reaction after touching something cold.

Despite this, ice chips can still be used to minimize mouth sores and alleviate pain during treatment, even with specific instructions to avoid cold items. According to hematologist and oncologist Dr. Stavroula Otis, consuming ice chips during infusion to reduce tissue exposure can help minimize symptoms later. The trick to making cryotherapy work for you and your treatment, specifically when instructed to avoid cold things, is timing. 

Opting for cryotherapy during treatment can help minimize the chances of mouth sores forming in the first place, while using them to minimize side effects after they've formed can help reduce the amount of time they cause pain. Cryotherapy should be avoided when the sores are fresh and delicate – you can use cryotherapy as a method of symptom management and reduction as soon as the sores and ulcers start to heal or if your doctor, nurse, or registered oncology dietitian recommends it. 

While cryotherapy may be a little uncomfortable, it can help to minimize the pain and inflammation associated with oral mucositis. Other options, like Healios, can offer relief to people undergoing chemotherapy, radiation, or both. Healios is a nutrient-based solution intended for patients at risk of developing or currently dealing with oral mucositis. Healios can help you reduce the severity and duration of oral mucositis by addressing the damage and not just the symptoms. If you are experiencing any painful symptoms from oral mucositis, consider products like Healios, which have natural ingredients that help soothe and support healing the tissues of your mouth and throat during chemo.

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