Rock guitarist Eddie Van Halen died last fall after a long battle with oral cancer, another in a long line of performers, athletes, politicians and other well-known personalities with this serious form of cancer. But household names like Van Halen are just the tip of the iceberg: Around 50,000 Americans are diagnosed with oral cancer each year.
Although not as common as other malignancies (around 2.5% of total cancers), oral cancer has one of the lowest five-year survival rates at a dismal 57%. Part of the reason for this has been the longstanding difficulty detecting it in its earlier stages: Early signs are easy to miss or mistake for a benign sore. As a result, it's often diagnosed after advancing significantly, complicating treatment efforts.
To improve survivability, the Oral Cancer Foundation designates each April as Oral Cancer Awareness Month to better educate people on this deadly disease. Here are 3 things you can do to prevent oral cancer or improve your survival odds if you encounter it.
Know your individual risk factors. Some risk factors for oral cancer are out of your control—for example, your risk may be higher if you're a male over 40, or if you're African-American. But there are also factors you can control like tobacco use, high alcohol consumption or a poor diet, all of which can elevate your cancer risk. You can lower that risk by making lifestyle changes for factors you can control and prioritizing cancer screening if you have factors that you can't.
Pay attention to oral “oddities.” A small mouth sore or patch of odd-looking skin may be nothing—or it may be the beginning of oral cancer. If you do notice something unusual, especially if it seems to linger beyond a couple of weeks, have us examine it as soon as possible. If it does appear suspicious, you may need to undergo a biopsy, a cancer analysis of the suspected tissue. If it is cancerous, an early diagnosis could improve your outcome.
Visit your dentist regularly. There's more to semi-annual dental visits than teeth cleaning. Regular dental visits are an important component in your “early warning system” for oral cancer—we may notice something suspicious during your regular visit, often before you do. If you're older or have other risk factors for oral cancer, we can expand your regular exam to include a comprehensive cancer screening.
Oral cancer is a serious matter. But taking steps to prevent it and staying alert to its warning signs can help you overcome it.
Your tooth enamel is often under assault from oral acid produced by bacteria and certain foods. Unless neutralized, acid can erode your enamel, and lead to destructive tooth decay.
But there's another type of acid that may be even more destructive—the acid produced in your stomach. Although important for food digestion, stomach acid outside of its normal environment can be destructive. That includes your teeth, if stomach acid finds its way into your mouth. And that can happen if you have gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD).
GERD, a chronic condition affecting 1 in 5 adults, is caused by the weakening of the lower esophageal sphincter, a ring of muscle at the intersection of the esophagus and the stomach that prevents stomach acid from traveling back into the digestive tract and damaging the esophageal liner.
It's also possible for stomach acid to travel as far up as the mouth. With a pH of 2.0 or less, stomach acid can lower the mouth's normal pH level of 7.0 well below the 5.5 pH threshold for enamel softening and erosion. This can cause your teeth, primarily the inside surfaces of the upper teeth, to become thin, pitted or yellowed. Your teeth's sensitivity may also increase.
If you have GERD, you can take precautions to avoid tooth damage and the extensive dental work that may follow.
- Boost acid buffering by rinsing with water (or a cup of water mixed with a ½ teaspoon of baking soda) or chewing on an antacid tablet.
- Wait about an hour to brush your teeth following a reflux episode so that your saliva has time to neutralize acid and re-mineralize enamel.
- If you have chronic dry mouth, stimulate saliva production by drinking more water, chewing xylitol gum or using a saliva supplement.
You can also seek to minimize GERD by avoiding tobacco and limiting your consumption of alcohol, caffeine or spicy and acidic foods. Your doctor may also prescribe medication to control your GERD symptoms.
Preventing tooth decay or gum disease from the normal occurrences of oral acid is a daily hygiene battle. Don't let GERD-related acid add to the burden.
If you would like more information on protecting your teeth from acid reflux, please contact us or schedule an appointment for a consultation. You can also learn more about this topic by reading the Dear Doctor magazine article “GERD and Oral Health.”
We're all tempted occasionally to use our teeth in ways that might risk damage. Hopefully, though, you've never considered anything close to what singer, songwriter and now social media persona Jason Derulo recently tried in a TikTok video—attempting to eat corn on the cob spinning on a power drill. The end result seemed to be a couple of broken front teeth, although many of his followers suspected an elaborate prank.
Prank or not, subjecting your teeth to “motorized corn”—or a host of other less extreme actions or habits—is not a good thing, especially if you have veneers, crowns or other dental work. Although teeth can withstand a lot, they're not invincible.
Here, then, are four things you should do to help ensure your teeth stay healthy, functional and intact.
Clean your teeth daily. Strong teeth are healthy teeth, so you want to do all you can to prevent tooth decay or gum disease. Besides semi-annual dental cleanings, the most important thing you can do is to brush and floss your teeth daily. These hygiene tasks help remove dental plaque, a thin biofilm that is the biggest culprit in dental disease that could weaken teeth and make them more susceptible to injury.
Avoid biting on hard objects. Teeth's primary purpose is to break down food for digestion, not to break open nuts or perform similar tasks. You should also avoid habitual chewing on hard objects like pencils, nails or ice to relieve stress. And, you may need to be careful eating apples or other foods with hard surfaces if you have veneers or composite bonding on your teeth.
Wear a sports mouthguard. If you or a family member are regularly involved with sports like basketball, baseball/softball or football (even informally), you can protect your teeth from facial blows by wearing an athletic mouthguard. Although you can obtain a retail variety in most stores selling sporting goods, a custom-made guard by a dentist offers the best protection and comfort.
Visit your dentist regularly. As mentioned before, semi-annual dental cleanings help remove hidden plaque and tartar and further minimize your risk of disease. Regular dental visits also give us a chance to examine your mouth for any signs of decay or gum disease, and to check on your dental health overall. Optimizing your dental health plays a key part in preventing dental damage.
You should expect an unpleasant outcome involving your teeth with power tools. But a lot less could still damage them: To fully protect your dental health, be sure you practice daily oral care, avoid tooth contact with hard objects and wear a mouthguard for high-risk physical activities.
If you would like more information on caring for your cosmetic dental work, please contact us or schedule a consultation. To learn more, read the Dear Doctor magazine articles “Porcelain Veneers” and “An Introduction to Sports Injuries & Dentistry.”
If it seems like your teeth are getting longer as you get older, it's unlikely they're magically growing. More likely, your gums are shrinking or receding from your teeth. Besides the negative effect on your appearance, gum recession exposes you and vulnerable tooth areas to harmful bacteria and painful sensitivity.
Although common among older adults, gum recession isn't necessarily a part of aging: It's primarily caused by periodontal (gum) disease, in which infected gum tissues can weaken and detach from the teeth. This, along with bone loss, leads to recession.
But gum disease isn't the only cause—ironically, brushing your teeth to prevent dental disease can also contribute to recession. By brushing too aggressively or too often (more than twice a day), you could eventually damage the gums and cause them to recede. Tobacco use and oral piercings can also lead to weakened or damaged gums susceptible to recession.
You can lower your risk of gum recession by abstaining from unhealthy habits and proper oral hygiene to prevent gum disease. For the latter, your primary defense is gentle but thorough brushing and flossing every day to remove harmful dental plaque. You should also see your dentist at least twice a year for professional dental cleanings and checkups.
If, however, you do experience gum recession, there are a number of ways to restore your gums or at least minimize the recession. To start with, we must treat any gum disease present by thoroughly removing all plaque and tartar (calcified plaque), which fuels the infection. This reduces inflammation and allows the gums to heal.
With mild recession, the gums may rejuvenate enough tissue to recover the teeth during healing. If not, we may be able to treat exposed areas with a tooth-colored material that protects the surface, relieves discomfort and improves appearance.
If the recession is more advanced, we may still be able to stimulate gum regeneration by attaching a tissue graft with a micro-surgical procedure. These types of periodontal surgeries, however, can require a high degree of technical and artistic skill for best results.
In any event, the sooner we detect gum disease or recession, the quicker we can act to minimize the damage. Doing so will ensure your gums are healthy enough to protect your teeth and preserve your smile.
If you would like more information on gum recession, please contact us or schedule an appointment for a consultation. You can also learn more about this topic by reading the Dear Doctor magazine article “Gum Recession.”
Dentists remove millions of teeth each year, often because of tooth decay or gum disease. But disease isn't the only reason—a tooth extraction might make it easier to straighten a crooked smile.
Realigning teeth for therapeutic or cosmetic reasons is a regular undertaking in dentistry, but the process itself often differs from person to person. Each individual patient requires their own treatment plan taking into account factors like the kind of bite problem involved, the size of the jaw and the space available to move teeth.
This plan could indeed involve removing teeth. For example, an abnormally small jaw could cause crowding. Not only can crowding move teeth out of position, it may also leave little to no room for moving teeth. Although dentists can minimize crowding by influencing jaw development in early childhood, removing teeth for more space is usually the only option available to older adolescents and adults.
Similarly, teeth can fail to erupt properly and remain partially or fully submerged beneath the gums (known as impaction). There is an orthodontic method for pulling an impacted tooth fully onto the jaw, but only if the tooth isn't too far out of alignment. Otherwise, it may be better to remove the impacted tooth and then correct any gaps with braces or a dental implant.
There's also a situation on the opposite side of the spectrum that could benefit from teeth removal—when one or more permanent teeth fail to form, known as congenitally missing teeth. This can cause gaps in the smile or a “lopsided” appearance where a tooth on one side of the jaw is present while its counterpart on the opposite side of the jaw is missing.
The missing tooth can be replaced by an implant, bridge or other restoration. But another option may be to remove the existing counterpart tooth, and then close the gaps. This can result in a much more attractive smile that might be simpler and less costly than replacing the missing tooth.
Again, the decision to remove teeth to improve smile appearance depends on the patient and their particular dental condition. But in the right situation, it could make straightening a smile easier and more effective.
If you would like more information on orthodontic treatments, please contact us or schedule an appointment for a consultation. You can also learn more about this topic by reading the Dear Doctor magazine article “Removing Teeth for Orthodontic Treatment.”
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