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common conditions

WHAT YOUR ORAL HEALTH CAN TELL YOU ABOUT YOUR BODY

If the eyes are the window to your soul, the mouth is the window to your health. “Your mouth is the first part of your digestive system, so if you have good oral health you are more likely to have good overall health as well,” says Carol Tran, vice president of the Dental Hygienists Association of Australia.

Here are seven of the most common oral health red flags – and how they can affect the health of your mouth and your overall wellbeing.

  1. Sensitivity to temperature
    Sensitivity or pain when you drink hot tea or eat ice cream is one of the most common oral health red flags, says dentist Dr Simone Belobrov. “It could be a sign of dental decay, potentially not visible to the naked eye, or due to a crack in a tooth,” she explains.
  2. Bad breath
    Bad breath or a bad taste in your mouth could point to “gum disease, gastric reflux issues and an ongoing serious infection such as an abscess”, says Tran. Bad breath can also indicate poor gut health, adds Dr Belobrov.
  3. Loose teeth
    Loose teeth are also a sign of gum disease, which occurs when the tissue that surrounds and supports your teeth becomes infected. There’s also evidence that loose teeth or tooth loss may be linked to osteoporosis. The condition is believed to lead to bone loss in the jaw, which means teeth become less secure in the mouth.
  4. Bleeding gums
    “Bleeding gums are the first sign of gum disease,” says Tran. The condition is usually caused by a build-up of plaque on teeth and along the gum line. If periodontitis, the most serious type of gum disease, isn’t treated, the structures that connect teeth to the gum can become so damaged that teeth become loose and need to be removed.
  5. White patches
    What causes white patches in your mouth? Dr Belobrov says they occur when the skin on the inside of your mouth becomes thicker. This could be due to infections like thrush or chemical causes like smoking. “White patches that persist or do not rub off require further assessment to rule out an underlying cause,” says Dr Belobrov.
  6. Dry mouth
    Dry mouth, also called xerostomia, means you might not be producing enough saliva, which Dr Belobrov says could leave you vulnerable to decay and disease. “Saliva washes away food and neutralises acid produced by bacteria in the mouth, helping to protect teeth from bacteria that can cause dental decay and [gum] disease,” she says.
  7. Gum disease
    Gum disease is itself an oral health red flag because it’s linked with a range of chronic conditions. It’s more frequent and severe among people with diabetes. There’s also evidence to suggest it could be a risk factor for Alzheimer’s disease – and your risk may double if gum disease persists for 10 or more years.

What’s more, a recent study reports a 24% increase in the risk of cancer among people with severe gum disease. And there’s also evidence of a link between gum disease and pneumonia.

Preventing poor dental health

Prevention is the key to good dental health, and Dr Belobrov says a check-up every six months can help to keep your teeth and gums healthy and identify any oral health red flags before they become serious.

In between check-ups, Tran says maintaining oral hygiene is really important – for your dental health as well as your general wellbeing – and staying on top of oral health facts.

“Focus on cleaning your gums as well as your teeth,” she says. “I often see patients clean their teeth very well but neglect cleaning the gum margin where the gum meets the tooth.”

Tran recommends an electric toothbrush to give your teeth a thorough clean. “Using an electric toothbrush alone has been shown to be superior to using a manual toothbrush and flossing combined,” she says.

Words by Angela Tufvesson
First published April 2020 

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