Tobacco use and oral health

by Senior Airman Julaine Moya
86th Dental Squadron dental assistant

A new year and a new you! When one hears the statement, “smoking is bad for your health,” one probably thinks of lung cancer and emphysema. However, did you know that smoking causes long-term gum disease, too?

Not only can using tobacco products cause oral cancer in your mouth and throat, it can also ruin your dental crowns, bridges and implants. The following is pertinent information regarding the use of tobacco and its destructive and dangerous effects on your health.

Long-term or chronic gum disease can lead to the loss of your teeth. Half of gum disease in smokers is caused by the side effects of smoking. Gum disease is a bacterial infection, which destroys the soft tissues and the bone that holds the teeth to the jawbones. In the early stages of the disease, you may notice your gums bleeding as you floss and brush. As the infection worsens, your gums begin to break down. They then pull away from your teeth forming deep pockets; you may notice persistent bad breath. If left untreated, the pockets between your teeth and gums get even deeper as the bacteria destroy more of the supporting structures. Your teeth may become loose, painful and could require removal by an oral surgeon.

Studies show smokers have more calculus than people who do not smoke. Calculus is plaque that has hardened over time. What is plaque? Plaque is soft, sticky film that forms in the mouth and holds the bacteria. The presence of bacteria in the mouth will usually cause the gums to bleed. However, smokers tend to have less bleeding and redness in their gums because smoking restricts the blood flow to the tissues, which reduces the ability for gums to heal. This does not mean their mouths are healthy; the bacterial destruction may still be occurring.

In most studies of non-surgical gum treatment, smokers show less improvement than nonsmokers. Smokers also do not respond well to surgical treatment. Dental implants are much more likely to fail in people who smoke because of poor bone healing. Crowns and bridges look great when first placed in the mouth, but tend to lose their beautiful appearance when the gums recede, bone is lost or teeth become stained from tobacco use.

Smoke damages oral tissues and interferes with basic functions that fight disease and promote healing. Cigarettes, pipe tobacco, smokeless tobacco and cigars can affect gum health. Pipe smokers have similar tooth loss rates as those who smoke cigarettes. Smokeless tobacco can cause the gums to recede. Receding gums increase the chance of losing the bone and fibers that hold teeth in place. This can lead to loose teeth and eventual tooth loss.

Tobacco’s greatest threat to your health may be its link to oral cancer. The American Cancer Society states that 90 percent of people with mouth cancer and some types of throat cancer have used tobacco. Smokers are six times more likely than nonsmokers to develop these cancers. Tobacco smoke from cigarettes, cigars or pipes can cause cancers anywhere in the mouth or part of the throat that is just behind the mouth. It can also cause cancer in the area of the larynx, lungs, esophagus, kidneys, bladder and several other organs.

Pipe smoking also can cause cancer in the area of the lips that contacts the pipe stem. Smokeless tobacco has been linked to cancers of the cheek, gums and inner surface of the lips.

Smokeless tobacco increases the risk of these cancers by 50 percent.

With a new year upon us, ensure you perform home oral cancer screenings regularly.  It is important to take a look inside your mouth to see if any changes have occurred. It is imperative to have regular dental examinations to evaluate gum health by a professional health care provider.  The Ramstein Dental Clinic is a great place to visit for questions, advice and help on quitting tobacco use.