When most people consider the health effects of using tobacco products, they think of diseases and conditions like lung cancer, heart disease, stroke, and COPD. However, smoking and the use of smokeless tobacco products have many other serious consequences, including oral cancers and gum disease. If you’re a smoker or you use smokeless tobacco products, here’s what you should know about the oral health risks you’re facing.
Tobacco and Oral Cancer
Studies have shown that the use of any type of tobacco product significantly increases the risk of oral cancers that can affect any of the soft tissue of the mouth, including the lips and palate, and it also increases the risk of cancers in the esophagus, larynx (“voice box”), lungs, kidneys, bladder, and other organs. The link isn’t surprising — after all, smoking and smokeless tobacco place the tissues of the mouth and throat in direct contact with the carcinogens contained in tobacco products and their smoke and juice, bathing the tissues with cancer-causing chemicals.
According to the Mouth Cancer Foundation, about 90 percent of oral cancers occur in people who use tobacco products including cigarettes, cigars, pipes, and smokeless tobacco products. Smokers are about six times as likely as non-smokers to develop oral cancers, and those who use smokeless tobacco are 50 times more likely to develop these cancers compared to those who do not use any tobacco products.
Tobacco and Gum Disease
In addition to oral cancer, smoking is a leading cause of gum disease and related tooth loss. Gum disease occurs when bacteria builds up along the gum line, hiding in hardened plaque deposits called tartar. As these bacteria multiply, they release toxic substances that cause gum tissue to shrink away from the tooth surfaces, creating tiny openings that enable the bacteria to move downward toward the root pockets. Over time, bacterial infection sets in around the root, loosening teeth and eventually causing them to fall out.
Research has shown that people who smoke tend to have significantly more tartar than nonsmokers, perhaps because the production of saliva in smokers is inhibited. In a healthy mouth, saliva works to wash away food particles and other materials that form the basis of plaque and tartar. When the mouth doesn’t produce as much saliva, food debris can build up around teeth, allowing plaque and tartar to form while also providing ample food for disease-causing bacteria.
Smoking also compromises circulation, which is essential for battling gum disease infections. Decreased blood flow to the gums means the mouth is less able to fight off infections, which could explain why gum disease tends to progress more quickly among those who smoke. In addition, smokers also have greater bone loss and much more soft tissue destruction compared to nonsmokers with gum disease. Decreased circulation means that smokers with gum disease are less likely to experience bleeding when brushing their teeth, an early sign of gum disease. While this may lead smokers to believe their gums are healthy, the lack of bleeding actually stems from the decreased flow of blood, which means that the diagnosis and treatment of existing gum disease can be delayed.
Due to the impaired healing response associated with smoking, gum disease treatments also tend to be less effective in people who smoke. In fact, studies have shown people who smoke have twice the likelihood of losing teeth during the five-year period following gum disease treatment compared to people who don’t smoke.
Problems with Implants
Using tobacco products has also been associated with a far greater incidence of implant failure, which occurs when a dental implant fails to fuse properly with the jaw bone that supports it. Dental implants achieve some of their strength from a process called ossification, which occurs when the bone tissue surrounding the implant begins to fuse with the titanium post that supports the artificial tooth or denture. Ossification helps stabilize the implant so that it’s able to withstand the pressures of biting and chewing.
The ossification process requires a good healing response and an unhindered supply of oxygen-rich blood to stimulate tissue growth and development. In people who smoke, the healing response is suppressed, largely due to changes in the blood vessels that restrict blood flow. As a result, it’s more difficult for ossification to take place in people who smoke, and implants are more likely to fail. Dental implants can be placed people who smoke or use smokeless tobacco, but they need to understand the increased risk for failure at the outset of their procedures.
In addition to the serious oral health risks explained above, smoking causes many cosmetic issues. All types of tobacco products are associated with yellowing and staining of the teeth, and people who use tobacco are also much more likely to have chronic bad breath. Tobacco use also can interfere with the appearance of cosmetic treatments like veneers, crowns and bridges, causing these restorations to become dingy and permanently discolored.
Enjoy better oral health
Quitting smoking (or the use of smokeless tobacco) is no easy task, but the benefits are so significant, it’s worth the time and effort expended to kick the habit once and for all. For help quitting, ask your doctor for assistance in finding a support group (online and in-person options are available) and about other options like nicotine patches. You can also visit www.SmokeFree.gov, a resource established by the National Institute of Health.
To make sure your teeth and gums stay as healthy as possible whether you use tobacco products or do not, call Briglia Dental Group at 610-692-4440 or make an appointment online to have a checkup, cleaning, and oral cancer screening.