By Dr. Dhruv Gupta
You can tell a lot about a person's state of health just by looking at their mouth. The teeth, gums and other intra-oral structures are like a window into the body.
For example, something that seems minor, like persistent bad breath, could be a sign of kidney or liver disease or diabetes. Preterm births and low birth weight children can also be closely related to the presence of gum disease. In fact, there is plenty of scientific evidence to support that both diabetes and gum disease affect the incidence, progression, and outcome of treatment of each other.
February is Children's Dental Health Month, and it's a good time to stress how important the mouth is. It's important to train health educators and lay health workers in key oral health skills so they can tell clients and patients how oral health can indicate—or even cause—serious issues.
The Mouth is Mighty
Many people disregard oral health, partly because gums may seem insignificant in terms of size. But consider that when the entire surface area around every tooth is added up, it roughly equals the size of your fist. Imagine a surface that large, inflamed and infected with micro-organisms wreaking havoc in your body. How much damage could such an infection do to the other organs?
Enough to affect long-term diabetes control. Enough to be a significant risk factor in the occurrence of babies born preterm and at a low birth weight, both leading causes of infant death and childhood disability.
Periodontists like me commonly see other symptoms in the mouth. I see indications of nutritional deficiencies, like iron and vitamin B12 among others. These conditions also change how oral disease progresses. It is very easy for a patient to fall into a vicious circle in which nutritional deficiencies affect the well-being of the teeth. And then if they lose teeth, they are at a higher risk of more nutritional deficiency since intake of food is affected.
Train for Oral Health Screening
This is one reason why oral health screening awareness is so important. The other reason, of course, is to catch oral cancer at the earliest stage possible. It is a little-known fact that oral cancer has a mortality rate that is far higher than other cancers that are better publicized, including laryngeal cancer, Hodgkin’s lymphoma, cervical cancer, thyroid cancer and many others.
We must address the big knowledge gap in oral health so they can recognize dental diseases before they become problematic.
Train more health educators to recognize the massive effects of oral health. Train them to recognize the signs and symptoms of oral cancer, and how rapidly it spreads disease to other parts of the body. Oral cancer is growing rapidly in incidence around the world, and 49,750 Americans are expected to be diagnosed this year. Half of them will not survive for more than five years.
Act Early on Oral Health Issues
The good news is that many oral cancers have easy-to-spot pre-malignant symptoms, unlike anywhere else on the body. So if health promoters can encourage more people to get screened for oral diseases, they can make a real impact.
We all get two sets of teeth, but that is all. Dental tissues cannot be repaired or regenerated. Any loss of tooth structure, teeth or surrounding bone is permanent.
Many people avoid seeking oral screening and dental cleaning because they think it's too expensive, but this is false economy. Dental treatment for problems once they have happened is much more expensive. And oral health problems continue to accumulate, becoming even more expensive.
Begin now by supplying the foundational knowledge of oral health problems, and it will have an important effect on more than you probably realize.
More Information for Oral Health
Here are some helpful resources you can share with your workforce now to have them address oral health with community members.
- Colgate Bright Smiles, Bright Futures - Printable materials to share with parents.
- Oral Health from the CDC – Information aimed at reducing disparities and expanding access to effective prevention programs.
- Oral Cancer from the National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research – Health information for health care professionals and to share with patients and the public.
Dhruv Gupta is a frequent Talance contributor. He is a periodontist with two clinical practices and lead author of an internationally published paper. He stays abreast of the latest developments in the field. His personal interests include a love for sport and traveling.