Your smile speaks volumes, even before you say a single word. It doesn’t just express your emotions or reveal your pearly whites. It showcases your health. And not just your oral health but your overall health.
Did you know that even your dentist can detect signs of health maladies such as diabetes, heart disease, and even cancer just by looking in your mouth? Oral health is a window to your overall health.
What’s going on in your mouth can seriously correlate to the rest of your body.
How Oral Hygiene Affects More Than Your Smile
From a young age, we’re taught the importance of good oral hygiene – brush twice a day, floss between your teeth daily, and visit your dentist every six months for a professional cleaning. Tooth decay, periodontal (gum) disease, and tooth loss can all result from poor oral hygiene.
Underlying conditions and certain medications can also cause oral disease. That’s why a good oral hygiene routine is important for keeping further complications at bay.
However, it’s not always just your teeth, gums, and overall appearance that suffer from poor oral hygiene. Depending on the severity, it could be life-threatening. More and more studies are finding a direct link between bad oral hygiene and major diseases, including oral cancer.
The Larger Effect of Poor Dental Hygiene
Oral cancer is not a rare disease. It’s one of the most highly prevalent cancers worldwide. According to the American Cancer Society, roughly 54,010 Americans will be diagnosed with oral cancer this year alone. And sadly, 10,850 will succumb to the disease.
Oral cancer refers to cancer that develops on the lips, other parts of the mouth, and the oropharynx (part of the throat at the back of the mouth). It occurs when cells within the mouth begin to grow out of control and become abnormal. These abnormal cells start to attack the healthy cells and cause mutations that result in possible tumors or tissue damage.
It’s unclear what the exact cause of oral cancer is, but conditions such as gingivitis (gum disease), cavities, and loose or missing teeth have been found to contribute to the development.
So, what’s the link to oral hygiene?
Bacteria – The Good, Bad, and Ugly
Research has found that bacteria resulting from poor oral hygiene could be a significant culprit to types of oral cancer. Your mouth contains about 700 microbes, or germs, such as bacteria, fungi, and viruses. Gross, right?! However, not all microbes are harmful. There is good bacteria that helps with digestion and fights off harmful germs, and then there is bad bacteria that can wreak havoc on your entire body.
Your mouth is a gateway not only to your digestive tract but also to your respiratory tract. Every single day, you are constantly swallowing bacteria that travels into your gut and throughout your body. Bacteria can also creep into your bloodstream with transportation via your gums.
Every time you eat, brush, and floss, you push germs into your gum tissue. That doesn’t mean stop brushing and flossing. It just means that if your gums are tender, inflamed, or recessed due to gum disease or another periodontal disease, it’s only opening the door further to harmful bacteria.
Other contributing risk factors for oral cancer include:
- HPV (human papillomavirus) Infection
- Age (average age of most people diagnosed with oral cancer is 63)
- Gender (more than twice as common in men as in women)
- Family history of cancer
- Tobacco use
- Alcohol consumption
How to Prevent Oral Cancer
When it comes to oral cancer, prevention is key, which means lowering your risk factors. Although oral hygiene is not the sole contributor to oral cancer, it’s one factor you can control. It’s imperative, especially with age, to continue to take good care of your teeth, gums, and mouth. As we age, our teeth can weaken and experience wear and tear, which makes us more susceptible to other issues.
Ceasing or limiting tobacco and alcohol consumption is another risk factor you have control over. Moderation is always best if you choose not to stop consumption and use altogether.
Don’t skip your dental exams. By visiting your dentist for regular checkups, they can keep an eye out for any possible changes or symptoms occurring in your mouth. It’s also important to note if you see any changes between your scheduled dental appointments.
Contact your dentist and primary care provider if you notice any of the following oral cancer symptoms:
- Mouth sores that won’t heal
- White or red patches on the gums or elsewhere in the mouth
- Changes in the fit of your dentures or implants
- Loose or shifting teeth
- Difficulty swallowing or chewing
- A lump or mass in the back of the throat
- Mouth swelling or pain
Any of these oral cancer symptoms can be a red flag and can help to detect abnormal cells before they develop into cancer. These are signs you don’t want to ignore or pass off as being something else.
Diagnosing Oral Cancer with Oral Screening
Along with prevention, early detection is vital for oral cancer. Currently, 63% of oral cancer diagnoses are found in late stages (stage III, IV), resulting in a 5-year survival rate of less than 50%. The 5-year oral cancer survival rate increases to 80-90% when detected early.
During your 6-month dental exam, you should ask your dentist to perform an oral cancer screening. This is a simple visual exam where your dentist looks for any signs of cancer or precancerous conditions in your mouth. They will also feel oral tissues for any possible lumps or growths.
In addition to a clinical exam, some dentists now use supplemental methods for detecting abnormal areas.
According to the Oral Cancer Foundation, oral cancer claims the life of one American every single hour. Catching oral cancer early can prevent you or a loved one from becoming a statistic.
The thought of oral cancer is scary, but by having regular oral cancer screenings, you can feel at ease knowing you are taking control of your oral health and overall well-being.