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COLUMN: October is National Dental Hygiene Month

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By Diana Leathers, Community Educator

 Many adults care for their teeth using habits that were formed early in childhood. It is important to be sure that those habits are good ones. As we age, our teeth and mouths can develop very different needs.

Gum disease, dry mouth, oral cancer and tooth decay (cavities) can become issues which can also have negative effects on our overall health. According to the Journal of the American Dental Association “the mouth is a window into the health of the body.” Our mouths can also reveal the first signs of disease within our bodies.

The best way to find out what specific oral health needs we have, and how best to treat them, is to visit a dentist on a regular basis. The dentist and dental hygienist can provide instructions on how to best care for our teeth and prevent infection or tooth decay in the future. 

The following are basic tips for taking care of adult teeth:

• Brush your teeth with a soft-bristled toothbrush (hard bristles are too rough on the gums) two times each day for two minutes.

• Floss your teeth once a day in order to remove food particles and bacteria from between the teeth where a toothbrush cannot reach.

• Rinse with an antiseptic mouthwash.

• Brush your tongue to remove bacteria that can lead to bad breath.

• Do not smoke or use smokeless forms of tobacco.

• Choose water instead of sugary drinks, especially if dry mouth is a concern.

• Visit a dentist regularly.

Even with good oral hygiene certain problems can occur in the mouth, such as oral cancer. According to the National Cancer Institute “oral cancer is a major cause of death and disfigurement in the United States.”   The majority of cases of oral cancer have been linked to the use of smoked and smokeless tobacco, according to the Center for Disease Control.

 Oral cancer has a high rate of being cured in its early stages, however, if the cancer is not found early, it can spread to other parts of the body and become more difficult to treat. 

The following are the some of the signs and symptoms that can occur with oral cancer:

• Sores in the mouth that do not heal

• Lumps on the lip or in the mouth or throat

• White or red patches on the gums, tongue or lining of the mouth

• Unusual bleeding, pain or numbness in the mouth

• Sore throats that do not go away, or a feeling that something is caught in the throat

• Difficulty or pain with chewing or swallowing

If you are experiencing any of these symptoms it is important to bring it to the attention of your dentist, dental hygienist, or physician.

Another oral health problem that can lead to health issues in the body is periodontal disease or “gum disease.”  This is an infection in the gums and bone that surround the teeth. According to the American Dental Hygiene association, “about 80 percent of American adults have some form of periodontal disease and the majority of them do not realize they have it, because in its early stages it is usually painless.”

The following are warning signs of periodontal disease:

• Bad breath or bad taste that won’t go away

• Red or swollen gums

• Tender or bleeding gums

• Painful chewing

• Loose teeth

• Sensitive teeth

• Gums that have pulled away from your teeth

• Any change in the way your teeth fit together when you bite

• Any change in the fit of partial dentures

If you notice any of these symptoms it is important to see a dental professional.

Tooth decay is something that can affect our teeth at any age. As we get older though, dry mouth, a side effect of certain medications and chronic diseases, can contribute to additional decay in our teeth. Tooth decay can lead to hot/cold sensitivity, infection, tooth loss and even missed work days due to pain.

With so many food and beverage options on the market these days it can be difficult to know which ones are better for our teeth and which ones can cause significant decay. Many drinks such as sodas, juice, sweet tea and sport drinks contain high levels of sugar which create acid on the teeth. If these types of drinks are consumed throughout the day, the entire mouth is bathed in acid and if you add to that a dry mouth, severe decay can develop over time.

Another culprit can be hard candies.  Many people with dry mouth rely on these to help create moisture in the mouth, but the sugar in these candies helps create the same acid environment as sugary drinks.

The following are tips for dealing with a dry mouth:

• Drink water throughout the day to moisten your mouth.

• Use sugar-free hard candies, if needed.

• Chew sugarless gum.

• Talk with a dental professional about products made to help treat dry mouth.

• Talk with your doctor about any medications you currently take that cause you to have a dry mouth. There may be a similar medication that does not have that side effect.

Taking care of our mouth and teeth is a lifelong commitment. It is never too late to develop good oral hygiene habits. Not only will we be healthier, but we will also set a great example for any young children or grandchildren that are watching. 

If you have not been to a dentist recently, make an appointment to discuss and learn what specific needs you may have and how to prevent painful and costly problems down the road.

For more information about dental health call the LaRue County Health Department at 358-3844. You can also visit the American Dental Association website at www.ada.org or the American Dental Hygienist’s Association at www.adha.org.