Neglecting your dental health and think you’re getting away with it? Learn why matters of the mouth have far-reaching consequences, and why you need to put on a brave face and book that overdue dentist visit.
Few of us get excited about a visit to the dentist. We’re anxious about our teeth. Have we brushed for two minutes, twice a day? Have we been flossing? What will the dentist have to say about our pearly whites?
Chances are, it will be quite a lot. The 2022 Jean Hailes National Women’s Health Survey found that one in three women had missed a dental visit because of the pandemic. In its annual Consumer Survey, the Australian Dental Association (ADA) found the same – and even worse. It revealed that two in three respondents had not been to see their dentist in the past two years, and one in four had not been in more than five years. Of the 25,000 people surveyed, 51% were women.
Neglecting our oral (mouth) health can carry serious consequences. Researchers are increasingly finding possible links between gum disease (periodontitis) and heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes and at-risk pregnancies. Few of us are even aware of these possible risks. According to the ADA’s survey, 66% of respondents were unaware that poor oral health could have an impact on medical conditions.
“Oral health is linked to overall health”, explains Dr Mikaela Chinotti, the ADA’s oral health promoter. She explains that many people simply lack the knowledge when it comes to how to protect their dental health. “For example, one in five people brush their teeth only once a day because they believe that brushing any more is bad. Only one in four flosses regularly”, she says.
“We recommend [brushing] twice a day for two minutes, in the morning and at night. We also recommend using a fluoridated toothpaste.”
A lot of dental conditions don’t have early warning signs.”Dr Mikaela Chinotti, Australian Dental Association
Gum disease (periodontitis) happens when bacteria collect between the teeth and gums. It’s a condition that’s responsible for a lot of poor oral health. Research published recently by the Harvard Medical School suggested that people with gum disease were two to three times more at risk of experiencing a heart attack, stroke or other cardiovascular disease.
Moderate to severe gum disease affects about one in three adults, and it can, according to Dr Chinotti, also carry great risks during pregnancy. “Research has linked periodontitis with pre-term [premature] births. Gum health is very important during [pregnancy].”
Menopause also affects our oral health. Jean Hailes GP Dr Tessa King says that as our oestrogen levels drop, so too can our supply of saliva. This can result in dryness of mouth (xerostomia), burning mouth syndrome, an increase in tooth decay (dental cavies), possible changes in taste and gum disease.
Dr Chinotti explains that changes in hormones can make the gums more sensitive to bacteria in the mouth. This can lead to bleeding of the gums and inflammation. The gums might look puffy or red – a condition known as gingivitis (a mild form of gum disease).
Gum disease can be hard to spot. The most common early sign is inflammation (redness, swelling, or both), and bleeding as we brush our teeth. While we often ignore this, Dr Chinotti says it is an important sign of gingivitis. Gingivitis is easily treated – and the damage can be reversed – but it’s important to see a dentist.
“A lot of dental conditions don’t have early warning signs”, says Dr Chinotti. “A toothache indicates that something is wrong but by then the issue may be relatively advanced. In most cases, there are few early warning signs.”
Untreated tooth decay can lead to tooth loss, which in turn leads to more dental treatment. Dr Chinotti says it’s best to have a check-up with a dentist every six to 12 months. Your dentist will usually recommend how often you need to visit.
A healthy, balanced diet and one low in sugar (as sugar is one of the biggest culprits in tooth decay) is important to good oral health.
“If you smoke, try to quit”, advises Dr Chinotti. “Smoking is a big risk factor for developing severe gum disease and there’s a lot of evidence emerging about the dangers of vaping.
“We also recommend sticking to the alcohol guidelines. Alcohol increases the risk of developing cancer of the mouth. Long-term drinkers might end up with tooth wear because of the acid in wines and mixers combined with spirits.”
She also advises women who experience morning sickness or reflux to resist the urge to brush their teeth immediately after vomiting or having symptoms. “They bring stomach acid into the mouth that covers the teeth and softens them. Brushing the softened teeth straight away can cause more tooth to be worn away.”
If you’re feeling especially nervous about a trip to the dentist, remind yourself that it’s not just you – many people have been skipping their regular visits – but it’s important to get on the front foot, particularly when it comes to your oral health. Think about a nice way to reward yourself once the task is complete.
Dr Chinotti says it can be helpful for women to understand that oral health is an important part of general health. She says a visit to the dentist doesn’t have to be a frightening prospect. Practising good dental habits at home is essential, but being under the care of a dentist means that the issues we cannot see in the mirror can be detected and cared for by a professional.