After months or even years of radiation or chemotherapy, the words "cancer-free" is music to your ears. Your joy and relief, though, may be tempered by the toll these treatments can take on the rest of your body—including your mouth.
Both of these treatments can destroy healthy tissue along with targeted cancer cells. If the focus has been on the head and neck regions, they could damage the salivary glands to the point that they won't produce adequate saliva flow.
A lack of saliva can have a detrimental effect on your oral health. Saliva buffers and helps lower oral acid levels that soften and erode enamel and increase the likelihood of tooth decay. Saliva also supplies antibodies that fight disease-causing bacteria. Otherwise, bacteria—and the risk for disease—can rapidly grow.
If these or other scenarios occur, you may experience dental damage, even tooth loss. Fortunately, we can restore an injured smile in various ways, including dentures, bridges or dental implants. But we should also attempt to limit the potential damage by taking steps to prevent dental disease during cancer treatment.
The most important of these is to brush and floss daily. Everyone should practice these hygiene tasks to remove disease-causing dental plaque, regardless of their health status. But because some natural disease-fighting mechanisms in the mouth may be disrupted during either radiation or chemotherapy, it's even more important if you're a cancer patient.
It's equally important to maintain as much as possible regular dental visits during cancer treatment. Dental cleanings provided during these visits remove any residual plaque and tartar (hardened plaque), which further lowers your disease risk.
Your dentist can better monitor your overall dental condition during frequent visits and provide as much treatment as you can tolerate. They can also enhance your protection against disease by prescribing antibacterial mouthrinses, fluoride applications or products to boost saliva production.
Some teeth and gum problems may be unavoidable; in that case, you may need post-treatment dental care to restore your oral health as needed. But caring as much for your dental health as you're able during cancer treatment could help you realize a better outcome.
Even masterpiece paintings need an appropriate frame. Likewise, our gums help bring out our teeth's beauty.
But gums are more than enhancements for our smile appearance—they're also critical to good oral health. In recognition of National Gum Care Month, there are a couple of reasons why you should look after your gums just like you do your teeth.
For one, the gums are primarily responsible for holding teeth in place. With healthy gums, the teeth won't budge even under chewing stress (although this attachment does allow for micro-movements). Diseased gums, however, are another story: Advancing gum disease weakens gum attachment, causing teeth to loosen and eventually give way.
The gums also protect the root end of teeth from pathogens and oral acid, just as enamel protects the crown. Gum disease can also foul up this protective mechanism as infected gums have a tendency to shrink away from the teeth (also known as gum recession). This exposes the roots to an increased risk for disease.
So, taking care of your gums is an essential part of taking care of your teeth. And, the basic care for them is the same as for your pearly whites: daily brushing and flossing and regular dental cleanings. These habits remove the buildup of dental plaque, a thin film of food and bacteria that cause gum disease.
It's also important to keep a watchful eye for any signs of gum abnormalities. Be on the alert for unusual gum redness, swelling and bleeding. Because these may be indicators of an infection already underway, you should see us for an examination as soon as possible.
If we find gum disease, we can begin immediate treatment in the form of comprehensive plaque removal. If the disease has advanced to the root, we may need to access this area surgically to remove any infection. So, the sooner we're able to diagnose and treat an infection, the less likely that scenario will occur.
Ironically, something meant to protect your gums could also damage them. You can do this with excessive and overly aggressive brushing. Putting too much "elbow grease" into brushing, as well as doing it more than a couple of times a day, could eventually cause the gums to recede. Instead, apply only the same degree of pressure to brushing as you would while writing with a pencil.
As we like to tell our patients, take care of your mouth, and your mouth will take care of you. Something similar could be said about your gums: Take care of these essential soft tissues, and they'll continue to support and protect your teeth.
We're all interested in how our toothpaste tastes, how it freshens breath or how it brightens teeth. But those are secondary to its most important function, which is how well our toothpaste helps us remove dental plaque, that thin bacterial film on teeth most responsible for both tooth decay and gum disease.
Daily brushing and flossing clear away dental plaque, resulting in a much lower risk for dental disease. But while the mechanical action of brushing loosens plaque, toothpaste helps complete its removal. It can do this because of two basic ingredients found in nearly every brand of toothpaste.
The first is an abrasive (or polishing agent), a gritty substance that boosts the effectiveness of the brushing action (which, by the way, alleviates the need for harmful aggressive brushing). These substances, usually hydrated silica, hydrated alumina or calcium carbonate, are abrasive enough to loosen plaque, but not enough to damage tooth enamel.
The other ingredient, a detergent, works much the same way as the product you use to wash greasy dishes—it breaks down the parts of plaque that water can't dissolve. The most common, sodium lauryl sulfate, a safe detergent found in other hygiene products, loosens and dissolves plaque so that it can be easily rinsed away.
You'll also find other ingredients to some degree in toothpaste: flavorings, of course, that go a long way toward making the brushing experience more pleasant; humectants to help toothpaste retain moisture; and binders to hold bind all the ingredients together. And many toothpastes also contain fluoride, a naturally-occurring chemical that strengthens tooth enamel.
You may also find additional ingredients in toothpastes that specialize in certain functions like reducing tartar buildup (hardened plaque), easing tooth or gum sensitivity or controlling bacterial growth. Many toothpastes also include whiteners to promote a brighter smile. Your dentist can advise you on what to look for in a toothpaste to meet a specific need.
But your first priority should always be how well your toothpaste helps you keep your teeth and gums healthy. Knowing what's in it can help you choose your toothpaste more wisely.
If you would like more information on oral hygiene products and aids, 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 “Toothpaste: What's in It?”
Tooth loss is often the unfortunate conclusion to a case of untreated periodontal (gum) disease—incentive enough to try either to prevent it or aggressively treat an infection should it occur. In either case, the objective is the same: to remove all plaque from dental surfaces.
Dental plaque (and its hardened form, tartar) is a thin buildup of bacteria and food particles on tooth surfaces. It's a ready food source for sustaining the bacteria that cause gum disease. Removing it can prevent an infection or “starve” one that has already begun.
Your first line of prevention is brushing and flossing your teeth daily to remove any accumulated plaque. Next in line are dental cleanings at least twice a year: This removes plaque and tartar that may have survived your daily hygiene.
Plaque removal is also necessary to stop an infection should it occur. Think of it as a more intense dental cleaning: We use many of the same tools and techniques, including scalers (or curettes) or ultrasonic devices to loosen plaque that is then flushed away. But we must often go deeper, to find and remove plaque deposits below the gums and around tooth roots.
This can be challenging, especially if the infection has already caused damage to these areas. For example, the junctures where tooth roots separate from the main body of the tooth, called furcations, are especially vulnerable to disease.
The results of infection around furcations (known as furcation involvements or furcation invasions) can weaken the tooth's stability. These involvements can begin as a slight groove and ultimately progress to an actual hole that passes from one end to the other (“through and through”).
To stop or attempt to reverse this damage, we must access the roots, sometimes surgically. Once we reach the area, we must remove any plaque deposits and try to stimulate regrowth of gum tissue and attachments around the tooth, as well as new bone to fill in the damage caused by the furcation involvement.
Extensive and aggressive treatment when a furcation involvement occurs—and the earlier, the better—can help save an affected tooth. But the best strategy is preventing gum disease altogether with dedicated oral hygiene and regular dental visits.
If you would like more information on preventing and treating gum disease, 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 “What are Furcations?”
Losing all your teeth can dramatically impact your life for the worst. Fortunately, we can give you your "teeth" back. The most common way, at least until a few decades ago, is with custom dentures, which reasonably restore life-like appearance and dental function. But it does have one major drawback—it can't stop bone loss.
Loss of bone in the jaws often occurs with missing teeth. Normally, the bone continuously generates newer cells to replace older ones that have died. Chewing stimulates this growth as the force generated travels up through the teeth to the bone. But when teeth go missing, new bone growth slows, eventually causing the bone's volume and density to decrease.
Dentures can't reactivate this lost stimulation, and so bone loss may continue. Dentures even accelerate this loss as the compressive forces applied to the bony ridge are detrimental. This often leads to a "loosening" of a denture's fit that can make them uncomfortable and less secure to wear.
Today, however, patients with total tooth loss have another option that could alleviate the problem of bone loss—dental implants. Since their inception forty years ago, implants have become the preferred method of both dentists and patients for tooth replacement.
Implants consist of a titanium metal post that's surgically imbedded into the jawbone. Bone cells are attracted to this particular metal, readily multiplying and adhering to the implant's titanium surface. Because of this, an implant can slow or even stop bone loss.
Most people are familiar with the single tooth implant with an attached lifelike crown. Although this use of implants could be used to restore total tooth loss, it can be quite costly replacing over two dozen teeth individually.
But implants could still be part of the answer for someone with complete tooth loss, because they can also be used to support traditional restorations. A few implants strategically placed around the jaw can support either a removable denture or a fixed bridge.
Besides being a cost-effective way to add support to these traditional tooth replacements, the inclusion of implants will likely decrease continuing bone loss. Most importantly, it can give you back your dental function—and your smile to boot.
If you would like more information on dental implant options, 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 “New Teeth in One Day.”
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