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What’s Your Risk for Oral Health Problems?

Oral health problems can seem like something that happens to other people — until the day you run into trouble at the dentist’s office. Don’t get caught unaware — know your oral health risks. There are many things that can raise your risk of tooth decay, gum disease, and even oral cancers.

So what’s your risk?

You’re at higher risk of oral health problems like decay, infection, and cancer if you:

  • Are a woman having hormonal changes. For women, hormonal changes around their period, menopause, and during pregnancy can cause inflamed gums (gingivitis). If left untreated, it can develop into a more serious gum disease called periodontitis.

  • Use tobacco. People who use tobacco — whether they smoke or chew — have a higher risk of the severe gum disease called periodontitis, and tooth loss. Tobacco users are also at high risk of cancers of the mouth, tongue, throat, and lips.

  • Drink alcohol. People who drink alcohol have a higher risk of oral cancers, especially if they are heavy drinkers.

  • Have certain diseases. Health conditions such as diabetes, anemia, Sjögren’s syndrome, cancer, hyperthyroidism, and HIV/AIDS can cause many oral health problems. People with these conditions are at higher risk for issues such as infections from yeast, fungus, or bacteria, plus tooth decay and gum disease.

  • Take certain medications. Many medications can cause dry mouth, a condition where there isn’t enough saliva in the mouth. Saliva helps prevents infection, gum disease, and tooth decay. Dry mouth puts you at higher risk for these problems. Some medication for allergies, high blood pressure, and depression can cause dry mouth. Some narcotic pain medications used after injury or surgery can also cause dry mouth.

  • Are an older adult. As we age, our mouths can produce less saliva, which normally helps protect our teeth and gums from decay and infection. Plus, many older people are on medications that can cause dry mouth. Also, our gums tend to recede or get lower along the tooth line. This can expose the roots of the teeth, which don’t have the hard layer of enamel to protect them. Root tooth decay can be a more common problem among older adults. Oral cancers are also more common in people ages 55 and older.

  • Have poor dental hygiene. Not brushing and flossing daily can cause plaque to build up and harden onto teeth. This can cause gum disease — inflamed gums that are red and bleed easily. Untreated, this can turn into periodontitis and even tooth loss.

  • Have oral sex with a person who has HPV. Human papillomavirus (HPV) has been shown to cause cancers, and it can cause oral cancers from sexual contact.

  • Are a man. Men have twice the risk of oral cancers as women.

  • Spend a lot of time in the sun or use a tanning booth. Cancer of the lips is more common in people who have a lot of exposure to UV rays, such as in sunlight or tanning booths.

  • Have a close family member with poor oral health. Unfortunately, some oral health problems may be linked to genes. This means that getting more tooth decay or gum problems may run in families. You’re more at risk for oral problems if your family has a history of them.

  • Use illegal drugs. Use of cannabis has the same risks as the use of tobacco — a greater chance of periodontitis and tooth loss. You’re also at higher risk of oral cancer. Using methamphetamine can cause severe tooth decay, periodontitis, and the loss of many teeth, also known as “meth mouth.” Heroin, opium, cocaine, and MDMA — also called Ecstasy — can cause dry mouth and lead to tooth decay and gum disease. 

  • Have poor nutrition. Not getting the right vitamins and minerals in your diet can cause the body to have problems fighting infection. This can mean gum disease could turn into periodontal disease more easily.

  • Have stress. Stress also harms the body’s ability to fight infection. This can turn small oral health problems into big oral health problems.

Taking Charge of Your Oral Health

If you have any of these risk factors for oral health problems, work with your dental care providers to make sure your mouth stays healthy. You’ll need to take extra care to prevent problems. Take good care of your teeth and gums by brushing and flossing regularly. You also may need to see your dentist more often for checkups and cleanings. He or she can help you prevent problems, and spot problems such as tooth decay early. Tell your dentist about any symptoms of oral health problems you have, such as sores, white patches, pain, or other problems in your mouth. Together you can keep your mouth healthy.

See your dentist right away if:

  • Your gums are red, swollen, painful, or bleed easily

  • Your gums have pulled away from your teeth

  • You have sore spots in your mouth

  • You have white patches in your mouth

  • You have a loose tooth

  • You have bad breath or a bad taste in your mouth that doesn’t go away

  • You have a lump or rough patch in your mouth

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