If you’re facing cancer treatment, we wish you the best outcome possible. Treating this disease has advanced tremendously in recent decades, but the available options are still often challenging to endure. It will be your primary focus for the foreseeable future.
As a dental provider we also want you to be aware how the two main treatments, chemotherapy and radiation, could adversely affect your teeth and gums, especially if you’re receiving radiation therapy near the head and neck. The aim of cancer treatment is to attack and destroy cancer cells to prevent their growth. Unfortunately, it can also destroy neighboring healthy cells and lead to harmful consequences in different parts of the body, including the mouth.
Salivary glands, for example, are especially vulnerable to damage during cancer treatment. This could create a situation where the mouth no longer produces adequate saliva flow, leading to a condition called xerostomia or dry mouth. Besides a lot of discomfort, restricted saliva flow can also increase your risk of tooth decay and other dental diseases. This is because saliva is the body’s acid neutralizer (acid can erode tooth enamel) and its first line of defense against microbial infection.
To guard against this, it’s important to support salivary flow as much as possible if you experience dry mouth symptoms during treatment (as well as beyond—it’s possible the damage to these glands could be permanent). Since some medications also contribute to dry mouth, you should speak with your physician about the prescriptions you’re taking: if any have dry mouth side effects ask if there’s an alternative drug without these side effects. You should also drink more water during the day and especially when taking medications. And consider substances like xylitol gum that can help boost saliva flow.
Unfortunately, it may not be possible to fully avoid the effects of these treatments on your teeth and gums. So, be sure you keep up daily brushing and flossing and see your dentist regularly for cleanings and checkups. If necessary, there are a number of restoration options to restore your smile after you’ve completed your treatment.
Did you see the move Cast Away starring Tom Hanks? If so, you probably remember the scene where Hanks, stranded on a remote island, knocks out his own abscessed tooth — with an ice skate, no less — to stop the pain. Recently, Dear Doctor TV interviewed Gary Archer, the dental technician who created that special effect and many others.
“They wanted to have an abscess above the tooth with all sorts of gunk and pus and stuff coming out of it,” Archer explained. “I met with Tom and I took impressions [of his mouth] and we came up with this wonderful little piece. It just slipped over his own natural teeth.” The actor could flick it out with his lower tooth when the time was right during the scene. It ended up looking so real that, as Archer said, “it was not for the easily squeamish!”
That’s for sure. But neither is a real abscess, which is an infection that becomes sealed off beneath the gum line. An abscess may result from a trapped piece of food, uncontrolled periodontal (gum) disease, or even an infection deep inside a tooth that has spread to adjacent periodontal tissues. In any case, the condition can cause intense pain due to the pressure that builds up in the pus-filled sac. Prompt treatment is required to relieve the pain, keep the infection from spreading to other areas of the face (or even elsewhere in the body), and prevent tooth loss.
Treatment involves draining the abscess, which usually stops the pain immediately, and then controlling the infection and removing its cause. This may require antibiotics and any of several in-office dental procedures, including gum surgery, a root canal, or a tooth extraction. But if you do have a tooth that can’t be saved, we promise we won’t remove it with an ice skate!
The best way to prevent an abscess from forming in the first place is to practice conscientious oral hygiene. By brushing your teeth twice each day for two minutes, and flossing at least once a day, you will go a long way towards keeping harmful oral bacteria from thriving in your mouth.
If you have any questions about gum disease or abscesses, please contact us or schedule an appointment for a consultation. You can learn more by reading the Dear Doctor magazine articles “Periodontal (Gum) Abscesses” and “Confusing Tooth Pain.”
Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS) jolted our collective consciousness in the 1980s. The deadly disease caused by the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) had no known cure and, at the time, no effective treatment.
HIV is a retrovirus, a virus with a genetic makeup and reproduction system differing from other kinds. After taking up permanent residency in the body, HIV begins “hijacking” the replication process of cells in the body's immune system and replacing it with a copy of its own. This destroys the cells' ability to protect the body from hostile organisms. As the virus affects more and more cells, the patient's condition ultimately develops into AIDS.
An estimated 35 million people worldwide (1.2 million in the U.S.) are currently infected with the virus. Thanks to new antiretroviral drugs, though, HIV can be kept from accelerating into AIDS. While their condition remains serious, many HIV positive patients can now live long and relatively normal lives. Even so, having the virus requires them to pay close attention to their health, including their mouth.
Even while stalled from becoming AIDS, HIV can still cause oral problems for 30 to 80% of patients. The fungal infection candidiasis (also known as thrush) is the most common of these problems, which appears as lesions, cracking skin or creamy white patches on the tongue or palate that easily bleed. Patients also have higher risks for dry mouth, oral cancer and periodontal (gum) disease.
HIV positive patients must practice diligent daily oral care and see their dentist for checkups regularly. Prevention, early diagnosis and treatment can keep gum disease and other damaging conditions under control. Monitoring oral health is also important because certain mouth conditions could be an early sign the infection is entering a new advanced stage in the body that requires additional attention.
Keeping vigilant in all aspects of health is a way of life for someone with HIV. Such vigilance, though, can help them maintain a healthy mouth and even prolong their life.
It's a big transition when your child enters college — for both of you. You may find “cutting the apron strings” a little rocky at times.
But like most parents, you'll soon condense what you still want your college kid to do down to a few major habits and choices. Be sure to keep health, diet and lifestyle choices on that list, areas which could have the most effect on their long-term health and well-being.
That should include dental care. Hopefully, they've already developed good hygiene habits like daily brushing and flossing and regular dental visits. But, on their own now, they're faced with other choices that could affect their dental health.
For example, eating a balanced, nutritious diet is necessary for a healthy mouth. That includes limiting sugar intake, especially when snacking. Disease-causing oral bacteria thrive on carbohydrates like sugar. These bacteria also secrete acid, which at consistently high levels can erode tooth enamel.
Tobacco smoking and excessive alcohol affect teeth and gums because both can inhibit secretion of saliva. Besides containing antibodies that fight infection, saliva also neutralizes mouth acid. A dry mouth caused by these habits, could put their mouth at higher risk for disease.
Your college student might also be influenced by the fashion of their peers to display piercings. Mouth piercings with lip or tongue hardware in particular can damage teeth. The constant movement and friction erodes enamel or may even cause a tooth fracture. If possible, try to steer them to self-expression that poses less risk to their dental health.
There's one other area that, believe it or not, could impact dental health: sex. While each family handles this particular subject differently, be sure your child knows that some forms of sexual activity increase the risk for contracting the human papilloma virus (HPV16). Among its many destructive outcomes, HPV16 profoundly raises the risk of oral cancer, a rare but deadly disease with a poor survival rate.
Going from home to college is a big step for a young person — and their parents. As a parent, you can help steer them to practice good habits and make wise choices that will protect their lives and health and, in particular, their teeth and gums.
If you would like more information on helping your college student maintain their dental health, 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 “10 Health Tips for College Students.”
As we age we become more susceptible to dental diseases. A common but often initially unnoticed problem for seniors is root decay.
We’re all familiar with tooth decay in the crown, the visible tooth above the gum line. Bacteria feeding on leftover sugar in the mouth produce acid, which at high levels erodes the teeth’s protective enamel. This forms cavities and, if untreated, deeper infection within the tooth that could reach the bone via the root canals.
But decay can also directly attack a tooth’s roots below the gum line. Roots are made of dentin and covered by a very thin layer of mineralized tooth structure called cementum. Cementum, which is much softer than enamel, is often lost because of its thinness, thus exposing the root’s dentin. This can make the area more susceptible to decay than the enamel-covered crown. Normally, though, the roots also have the gums covering them as added protection against bacterial infection.
But gum recession (shrinkage), a common experience for people in their later years, can expose the root surfaces. As a result, the roots become much more susceptible to decay. And an ensuing infection could spread more quickly into the interior of the tooth than decay originating in the crown.
That’s why it’s important to remove the decayed material and fill the root cavity to prevent the infection’s spread. While similar to a crown filling, the treatment can be more difficult if the root cavity extends below the gum line. In this case, we may need to perform a surgical procedure to access the cavity.
There are other things we can do to help prevent root cavities or limit their damage. We can apply fluoride varnish to strengthen the teeth and provide extra protection against cavities, or prescribe a fluoride rinse for use at home. We can also keep an eye out and treat periodontal (gum) disease, the main cause for gum recession.
The most important thing, though, is what you do: brush and floss thoroughly each day to remove bacterial plaque and limit sugary or acidic foods in your diet. Preventing decay and treating cavities as soon as possible will help ensure you’ll keep your teeth healthy and functional all through your senior years.
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