Posts for category: Oral Health
Although cancer treatment has advanced steadily in recent decades, the most used therapies continue to be radiation and chemotherapy to eradicate cancerous cells. And while they often work, both can cause "collateral damage" in healthy tissues near the targeted cells.
This can create a number of indirect consequences for a patient's health, including in the mouth. The salivary glands, for example, can be damaged by radiation treatments aimed at the head or neck. The effect on these glands can interrupt the normal flow of saliva and cause xerostomia or "dry mouth."
Lack of adequate saliva causes more than an unpleasant, sticky mouth feeling. One of saliva's main functions is to neutralize acid that builds up naturally after eating. Without it, high acid levels can cause enamel and root surface erosion and lead to tooth decay.
Cancer treatment can also contribute to gastro-esophageal reflux disease (GERD). This disease causes stomach acid to bypass the natural tissue barriers of the esophagus and enter the mouth. As with dry mouth, the increased acid level from GERD can be just as devastating to enamel—and the damage will be permanent.
To minimize these effects on your dental health, it's important to take proactive steps before, during and after cancer treatment. If at all possible, have any needed dental work performed before you begin radiation or chemotherapy—it's better to start it with teeth and gums as healthy as possible.
During treatment, try to continue regular dental visits to monitor your oral health and receive any needed preventive or therapeutic treatments. Depending on your condition and the advice of your dentist, you may need to increase your visit frequency during this time. Your dentist can help with boosting your saliva production and strengthening your tooth enamel. But you should also practice daily brushing and flossing, drink plenty of water and seek treatment for any resulting GERD symptoms.
Even with the best efforts, though, your teeth and gums may still incur damage while treating your cancer. Fortunately, there are a wide array of materials and procedures that can effectively restore them to health. So, once your treatments are completed consult with a dentist on your options for improving the health and appearance of your teeth and gums.
While tooth decay seems to get most of the “media attention,” there’s another oral infection just as common and destructive: periodontal (gum) disease. In fact, nearly half of adults over 30 have some form of it.
And like tooth decay, it begins with bacteria: while most are benign or even beneficial, a few strains of these micro-organisms can cause gum disease. They thrive and multiply in a thin, sticky film of food particles on tooth surfaces called plaque. Though not always apparent early on, you may notice symptoms like swollen, reddened or bleeding gums.
The real threat, though, is that untreated gum disease will advance deeper below the gum line, infecting the connective gum tissues, tooth roots and supporting bone. If it’s not stopped, affected teeth can lose support from these structures and become loose or out of position. Ultimately, you could lose them.
We can stop this disease by removing accumulated plaque and calculus (calcified plaque, also known as tartar) from the teeth, which continues to feed the infection. To reach plaque deposits deep below the gum line, we may need to surgically access them through the gums. Even without surgery, it may still take several cleaning sessions to remove all of the plaque and calculus found.
These treatments are effective for stopping gum disease and allowing the gums to heal. But there’s a better way: preventing gum disease before it begins through daily oral hygiene. In most cases, plaque builds up due to a lack of brushing and flossing. It takes only a few days without practicing these important hygiene tasks for early gingivitis to set in.
You should also visit the dentist at least twice a year for professional cleanings and checkups. A dental cleaning removes plaque and calculus from difficult to reach places. Your dentist also uses the visit to evaluate how well you’re doing with your hygiene efforts, and offer advice on how you can improve.
Like tooth decay, gum disease can rob you of your dental health. But it can be stopped—both you and your dentist can keep this infection from ruining your smile.
While oral hygiene, a nutritious diet and regular dental visits are all crucial to long-term oral health, these efforts complement what your body already does to keep your mouth healthy. One of the major players in this function is saliva.
Produced by hundreds of glands located throughout the mouth, saliva does much more than help you swallow and wash away food. As you chew, an enzyme in saliva known as amylase breaks down starches in your food to make it easier to digest in the stomach. Saliva also contains antibodies, similar to what’s in tears, which can fight bacteria and other disease-causing organisms.
Perhaps its most important function, though, is its ability to protect and maintain healthy tooth enamel. The strongest substance in the body, enamel nevertheless has one primary enemy — the acid found in certain foods or as a byproduct of bacteria feeding on sugar and other carbohydrates.
When the ideally neutral pH level of the mouth becomes too acidic (nearly every time you eat), minerals in the enamel begin to soften and dissolve. The increased saliva flow when we eat floods the mouth with buffering agents that neutralize the acid and restore the mouth’s normal pH level. Not only does saliva stop demineralization, but it also restores a good bit of the enamel’s mineral content.
In recent years, a new role for saliva has begun to emerge as a means to diagnose disease. Like blood, urine and other bodily fluids, saliva contains molecules that serve as biological markers for disease. Given the right equipment, saliva has the potential to indicate early signs of cancer (including oral), diabetes and other systemic conditions. As the means to examine saliva for these markers increases it promises to be easier and less expensive to collect and sample than blood, while reducing the chances of transmitting bloodborne diseases to healthcare workers.
It’s a lot to consider with this fluid that you hardly notice, except when it isn’t there. Saliva is proof that our efforts at keeping our mouths healthy cooperate and depend on our bodies’ amazing systems.
If you would like more information on saliva and other ways your body maintains a healthy mouth, 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 “Saliva.”
X-rays are an important diagnostic tool in dentistry because of their ability to penetrate and pass through body tissues. Because they penetrate at different speeds depending on tissue density (shorter and thus darker on exposed film for soft tissues, longer and lighter for hard tissues like bone or teeth), we’re able to detect decay which appear as dark areas on x-ray film.
Without x-rays, the early detection and diagnosis of dental problems would be quite difficult. But despite its obvious benefits, it’s still a form of released energy that exposes patients to a certain amount of radiation. Since the potential health risk from radiation depends on the amount released (the dosage) and for how long and often a person is exposed, we must determine if the dosage and frequency from dental x-rays is a cause for concern.
It’s a common misconception to view any radiation exposure as dangerous. The truth is, however, we’re all exposed daily to radiation from the natural environment — about 2 to 4.5 millisieverts (the dosage measurement for radiation exposure) a year, or about 10 microsieverts (one-thousandth of a millisievert) every day.
In comparison, radiation exposure from routine dental x-rays is a fraction of this if measured over time. A set of four bitewing images of the back teeth produces 4 microsieverts of radiation, less than half the average daily exposure. One of the most comprehensive x-ray sets, a full mouth series of 18-20 images using “D” speed film, results in an exposure of 85 microsieverts, equaling about a week of normal radiation exposure.
These thoroughly researched rates help demonstrate that regular dental x-rays are relatively safe. What’s more, x-ray technology has continued to advance since first used in the mid-20th Century. With innovations in film and digital processing, today’s equipment produces only 80% of the radiation exposure of earlier machines. In effect, we’ve increased our capabilities to more accurately detect and diagnose issues through x-rays, while lowering the amount of radiation exposure.
Of course, a person’s annual exposure rate may differ from others. If you have concerns for yourself or your family about x-ray radiation exposure, please feel free to discuss this with us. Our primary goal is to improve your oral health without undue risk to your health in general.
If you would like more information on x-ray diagnostics and safety, 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 “X-Ray Frequency and Safety.”
Ever wonder just exactly what causes cavities? Once upon a time, “Toothworms” — miniscule, yet relentless pests — were thought to be responsible for this widespread malady. This belief persisted from ancient times through the 17th Century; William Shakespeare even made reference to the baneful beasts in his play Much Ado about Nothing. (“What, sigh for a toothache? [It] is but a humor or a worm.”) Today, however, we know why no one ever observed an honest-to-goodness toothworm: it’s because they’re much too tiny to see with the naked eye.
Actually, it isn’t worms, but much smaller organisms that cause tooth decay. These harmful plaque bacteria (along with many helpful microorganisms) live in the mouth, and build up on surfaces of the teeth when they aren’t cleaned properly. They feed on sugar in the diet, and release substances that erode tooth enamel, which causes small holes called cavities. Cavities, in turn, are what’s responsible for most toothaches.
While we may scoff at old legends, one fact remains: Even today, according to the National Institutes of Health, tooth decay is the number one chronic disease of both children and adults; and it’s almost entirely preventable. We can’t blame it on toothworms — but what can we do about it?
Glad you asked! The best way to avoid decay is through prevention. That means brushing your teeth twice a day with a fluoride toothpaste, and flossing them every day. It also means eating a balanced diet and avoiding acidic and sugary foods — like soda, some juices, and sweet, sticky snacks. If you do consume these types of foods, limit them to mealtimes; that gives your saliva enough time in between to neutralize the acids naturally. And, of course, make an appointment see us twice a year for a complete check-up and professional cleaning.
If you do begin to notice the symptoms of tooth decay (toothache, for example) it’s important to come in to the dental office right away, so we can treat the problem before it gets worse. Prompt action can often help save a tooth that might otherwise be lost. Besides filling the cavity, we may be also able to recommend ways to help prevent the disease from affecting other teeth. And if you need a more extensive procedure to relieve the problem — such as a root canal — we can make sure you get the appropriate treatment.
We’ve come a long way since the “toothworm” days — but we can still do a lot more to make tooth decay a thing of the past.
If you would like more information about tooth decay and cavity prevention, please contact us or schedule an appointment. You can learn more in the Dear Doctor magazine article “Tooth Decay — The World’s Oldest & Most Widespread Disease” and “Tooth Decay — How To Assess Your Risk.”