Tobacco and Oral Health

Halloween is rife with scary music, ghoulish décor and fiendish costumes. But for some, nothing could be more frightening than a trip to the dentist. Nothing, except perhaps going to the dentist and finding out that you have a cavity or gum disease.

Children are not the only ones getting cavities; adults have their fair share as well. According to the National Institutes of Health, 92% of adults have dental caries in their permanent teeth.  Factors contributing to tooth and gum disease include brushing habits, genetics, stress and smoking!

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, smokers are 4 times more likely than never smokers to have problems with oral health. These problems include:  

  • Bad breath
  • Tooth discoloration
  • Increased build up of plaque and tartar on the teeth
  • Increased loss of bone in the jaw
  • Increased risk for leukoplakia (white patches inside the mouth)
  • Increased risk of gum disease
  • Increased risk of oral cancer
  • Problems with hot/cold sensitivity
  • Tooth decay/loss

With every cigarette, thousands of chemicals, heat and smoke assault the teeth, gums and oral cavity. This alters the acidity of the mouth, contributes to plaque build up and staining of the teeth, damages taste buds and nerve cells, and impairs blood circulation. Smoking also compromises the immune system, making a smoker more susceptible to infections like cold sores.

Cigar smoking is not any better for oral health, even if you don’t inhale. Some cigars contain the equivalant amount of tobacco as an entire pack of cigarettes! The smoke and chemicals from cigar smoke can irritate the gums and can cause them to recede at rates similar to cigarette smokers.

Even without smoke or heat, tobacco in general is bad news for oral health. Smokeless tobacco comes into direct contact with the gums and causes even greater irritation and recession of the gum line. Furthermore, bacteria in the mouth “feed” on the sugar added to smokeless tobacco. This bacteria produces acid which eventually wears away at the tooth’s enamel, making smokeless tobacco users four times more likely than nonusers to develop cavities according to a study published in the Journal of the American Dental Association.

Knowing all of this, quitting all tobacco products for healthier teeth is a no brainer. When smokers quit, they cite noticing pinker gums and lips.  Another benefit noticeable within days of quitting is improved sense of taste and smell—making food more enjoyable again! There may also be some less pleasant side effects.  Sometimes smokers will notice gum sensitivity or gums that bleed more easily.  Ex-smokers might also notice a “metallic” taste in mouth, a medical term known as dysguesia (altered taste). These symptoms are temporary and can probably be attributed to improved blood circulation, repair of taste buds and nerve cells, and other signs of healing those early weeks of quitting.

In the meantime, it’s important to keep up with a regular dental routine (brushing and flossing, using a "soft" toothbrush head, and being as gentle as possible) as well as maintaining regular visits to the dentist.  Limiting sticky, sugary foods like juice, nougat, caramel and taffy will also help prevent cavities. Your dentist will no doubt notice the improvements and compliment you. And that's something to smile about.