How is your oral health? Are you taking good care of your mouth, teeth, and gums? You should since problems in your mouth can affect your overall health.
Why is oral hygiene important?
While you may not see them, feel them or taste them, your mouth is teeming with bacteria, but most are harmless. And given that the mouth is the gateway to one’s body, the harmful bacteria can cause problems in the rest of your body.
Usually, your body’s immune system and good oral hygiene keep bacteria under control.
But without proper oral health, bacteria can reach levels that might lead to oral infections, such as dental caries, gingivitis (gum inflammation), periodontitis (gum disease).
Gum disease can cause significant dental pain and even loss of teeth. Moreover, studies have linked periodontitis to other health problems, including heart disease, diabetes, pregnancy and birth complications, pneumonia, and Alzheimer’s disease.
Facts about dental and oral hygiene
- 60 to 90% of school children have at least one dental cavity
- The average adult between the ages of 20 and 64 has three or more decayed or missing teeth
- 8 to 10% of adults have gum disease
- About 30% of people aged 65 to 74 worldwide don’t have any natural teeth left
Common dental and oral problems
Harmful oral bacteria, such as Streptococcus mutans and Porphyromonas gingivalis, cause various dental problems including:
Tooth decay, also known as dental caries, occurs when a film of bacteria called plaque reacts with the sugars in the food you eat.
The reaction leads to the production of enamel-eroding acids that cause cavities in your teeth.
Bad breath/halitosis is estimated to affect 1 in 4 people globally. Causes of bad breath include using tobacco products, a dry mouth, poor oral hygiene, crash diets, and some foods such as onions.
Additionally, according to dental research, about 85 percent of people with chronic bad breath have a dental condition that is to blame.
Oral and oropharyngeal cancers
Cancer is a term for diseases in which abnormal cells divide without control and can spread to other parts of the body.
Oral cancer affects the parts of the oral cavity (mouth), which include the lips, the teeth, the gums, the inner lining of the lips and cheeks, the floor of the mouth under the tongue, and the hard palate.
Oropharyngeal cancer affects the oropharynx, the middle part of the pharynx.
The oropharynx includes the tongue base, tonsils, soft palate, and pharyngeal walls. Symptoms for both cancers include:
- A sore on the lip or in the mouth that does not heal
- A lump on the lip or in the mouth or throat
- White or red patches on the gums, tongue, tonsil, or lining of the mouth
- A persistent sore throat
- Pain or difficulty with chewing or swallowing
- Hoarseness or change in voice
- Pain or bleeding gums in the mouth
- Numbness of the mouth or tongue
Gingivitis is a mild form of gum disease that causes irritation, redness, and inflammation of the gums. Between 50 and 90% of adults have gingivitis, which, if left untreated, leads to periodontal disease.
Gum/periodontal disease is a gum infection that can affect the bone that surrounds and supports your teeth. It is caused by bacteria in dental plaque and is the leading cause of tooth loss in adults.
There are several types of mouth sores, such as:
- Canker sores/aphthous ulcers: they form on tissues in the mouth, usually heal in 10 to 14 days, and are not contagious.
- Cold sores: they appear on the outside of your lips, are contagious, and usually go away within one to two weeks.
Tooth erosion is the loss of tooth structure caused by acid attacking the enamel. Symptoms include teeth becoming:
- Sensitive to hot and cold foods/beverages
Chipped or broken teeth
Teeth chip, crack or break due to a variety of reasons, including:
- Biting or chewing hard foods, such as ice and nuts
- Large fillings that destabilize teeth
- Blows to the mouth
- Tooth decay as it weakens the tooth structure
- Teeth grinding (bruxism)
Tooth sensitivity/dentin hypersensitivity
If hot, cold, sweet or very acidic foods and drinks, or breathing in cold air, makes your teeth/tooth sensitive or painful, then you have sensitive teeth.
Tooth sensitivity occurs when the dentin gets exposed due to cavities, cracked teeth, receding gums, and enamel erosion.
The symptoms of a toothache include sharp pain or dull pain in or around a tooth, often caused by tooth decay. A cracked tooth or an abscessed tooth can also result in a toothache.
Symptoms of dental and oral problems
Although you shouldn’t wait until you have symptoms to visit your dentist, you should make an appointment if you experience any of the following symptoms of dental health issues:
- Mouth sores that last more than two weeks
- Inflamed gums that bleed when brushing or flossing
- Persistent bad breath
- Sudden sensitivity to hot and cold temperatures through food, beverages, and even air
- Jaw and mouth pain or toothache
- Receding gums and loose teeth
- Pain when chewing or biting
- Cracked or broken teeth
- An unusually dry mouth
- Swollen cheek
- Jaw popping and clicking
Causes of dental and oral diseases
As previously mentioned, your mouth is home to entire colonies of microorganisms. And while most of these bacterial species are harmless, some are downright harmful.
For instance, Streptococcus mutans produces enamel-eroding acids which cause tooth decay, and Porphyromonas gingivalis is involved in the progression of gum disease.
Bacteria that sticks on the teeth (plaque) makes gums prone to infection. And when the immune system attacks this infection, it causes the gums to inflame, a condition known as gingivitis.
If left untreated, increased inflammation and the chemicals released eat away at the gums and bone structure that hold teeth. The result is severe gum disease known as periodontitis.
Risk factors for gingivitis and periodontitis include:
- Poor dental hygiene
- Frequent snacking on sugary foods and drinks
- The use of medications that cause dry mouth
- Systemic conditions such as AIDS or diabetes
- Acid reflux or heartburn
How to diagnose oral and dental problems
Most dental and oral problems can be diagnosed during a dental exam, where a dentist examines your teeth, mouth, throat, tongue, cheeks, jaw, and neck. The dentist uses various tools and takes dental X-rays to assist in the diagnosis.
A tool known as a probe is used to measure your gum pockets. It tells your dentist if you have receding gums or gum disease. And in the case of abnormal lumps, lesions, or growths in your mouth, your dentist may perform a gum biopsy.
If oral or oropharyngeal cancer is suspected, your dentist may order imaging tests to check if the cancer has metastasized. These tests may include X-ray, MRI scan, CT scan, and endoscopy.
Treating dental and oral problems
If you’re showing signs of gum disease, infections, or other oral problems, your dentist may recommend various treatments, including:
- Cleaning: a dental hygienist uses a scaler to remove plaque and tartar around your gum line and in between your teeth. The hygienist later brushes your teeth with a high-powered toothbrush, which is followed by flossing and rinsing.
- Fluoride treatments: following a dental cleaning, your dentist may apply a fluoride treatment on your teeth’s surface. Fluoride strengthens tooth enamel and prevents cavities.
- Antibiotics: your dentist may prescribe antibiotics if you have a gum infection or a tooth abscess. They come in different forms, such as a mouth rinse, gel, oral tablet, or capsule.
- Fillings, crowns, and sealants: with fillings, dentists remove the damaged part of a tooth and fill it. Dental crowns involve dentists placing tooth-shaped caps over teeth or implants. And sealants are thin, protective coatings placed on the back teeth. These treatments repair or prevent tooth structure damage.
- Root canal: if tooth decay reaches the pulp of your tooth, a root canal treatment is needed. During the procedure, the nerve and pulp are removed and replaced with a filling.
- Probiotics: these helpful bacteria help prevent plaque, treat bad breath and, decrease inflammation from gum disease. You can take probiotic supplements or eat probiotic foods, such as yogurt, kefir, tempeh, kimchi, miso et cetera.
Surgery for dental or oral problems
Oral surgeries can be performed to treat advanced periodontitis, replace missing teeth, or fix broken ones.
- Flap surgery: the surgeon makes a small cut in the gum and folds it back in the form of a flap. He/she will then remove plaque and tartar underneath the gums then stitch the flap back into place.
- Bone grafting: if gum disease causes damage to the bone surrounding the root of your tooth, a bone graft is needed. A graft made from one of your bones, a synthetic bone, or a donated bone replaces the damaged bone.
- Soft tissue grafts: to treat receding gums, a dentist removes a small piece of tissue from your mouth or uses a donor tissue and attaches it to the areas of your gums that are missing.
- Tooth extraction: in cases where a tooth cannot be saved, it is likely to be extracted. Tooth extraction is also done to remove impacted teeth.
- Dental implants: these are metal posts or frames that are surgically placed in your jawbone to support replacement teeth.
How to keep your teeth and gums healthy
- Brush your teeth at least twice a day with a brush whose head and bristles are small enough to reach into the crevices of your molars
- Use fluoride toothpaste
- Floss daily
- Use a mouthwash to remove food particles toothbrushes or floss can’t reach
- Replace your toothbrush every three months since bristles deteriorate with time and usage
- Eat a healthy diet and reduce the intake of foods with added sugars, such as soda, cakes, ice cream, among many others
- Avoid using tobacco products
- Schedule regular dental visits and cleanings
Remember, good oral hygiene is an investment in your overall health.
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- Periodontal disease and systemic health. (n.d.).
- Mayo Clinic Staff. (2016). Oral health: A window to your overall health.
- Adult oral health. (2017).
- Oral cancer facts. (2017).