Oral Health: Adults

Almost all adults have problems with oral health at some point in their lives. In the U.S., one in four adults has untreated tooth decay. Nearly half of all adults have gum disease.

Untreated gum disease or tooth decay may lead to pain, infection, tooth loss, difficulty eating, bad breath and the need for complex dental procedures to treat the teeth.

Health Risks

Tooth Decay

Tooth decay is damage from germs eating away at the teeth. Over time, this may cause cavities to form.

Regular dental visits are the best way to detect tooth decay early, when it is more easily treatable.

Symptoms of tooth decay include:

  • Brown spots on the teeth
  • Toothache
  • Pain when biting or chewing, or when eating or drinking something sweet, hot or cold
  • Holes in the teeth
  • Cracked or broken teeth

You are more likely to have tooth decay if you:

  • Consume food or drinks high in sugar or starch
  • Frequently snack between meals
  • Do not brush or floss regularly
  • Have dry mouth
  • Are older than 65

Gum Disease

Gum disease is an infection that forms when plaque and tartar irritate the gums and cause them to become swollen, tender or infected. Brushing and flossing can help minimize plaque.

Symptoms of gum disease include:

  • Sensitive teeth
  • Red, tender or swollen gums (gingivitis)
  • Bad breath or bad taste in the mouth
  • Gums that have pulled away from the teeth
  • Gums bleeding when eating or brushing
  • Loose or separating teeth (periodontitis)

The following factors may increase your risk for developing gum disease:

  • Smoking or using tobacco
  • Older than 65
  • Diabetes
  • Poor oral hygiene
  • Family history of gum disease
  • Diseases that affect the immune system
  • Defective fillings or poorly fitting dental appliances (dentures, bridges, crowns)
  • Medicines that cause dry mouth
  • Stress
  • Pregnancy and hormonal changes in women

Oral Cancer

Oral cancer affects the mouth or throat. Each year, about 800 New Yorkers are diagnosed with oral or throat cancers. The risk for oral cancer increases with age and cases occur twice as often in men as women.

Oral cancer can spread quickly, so a dental exam is important for detecting tumors early, when treatment is most successful. An oral cancer screening is quick and painless. It can be done during your regular dental checkup.

Symptoms of oral cancer include:

  • Sores or discolorations in the mouth, lips or throat
  • White or red patches inside the mouth that do not go away
  • Numbness in the tongue or mouth
  • Persistent throat pain or the feeling that something is caught in your throat
  • Difficulty chewing, swallowing or moving your tongue
  • Swelling in the mouth, jaw or neck

Risk factors for oral cancer include:

  • Tobacco. Tobacco use is the most common cause of oral cancer. It has been linked to the use of cigars, cigarettes, pipes and smokeless tobacco. Quitting at any time can improve your health, even if you already have cancer.
  • Heavy alcohol use.
  • Human papillomavirus (HPV).
  • Sun exposure. Use a lip balm with sunscreen to help protect your lips.
  • A prior history of oral cancer. People who have had oral cancer are at greater risk of getting it again.

If you experience any of these symptoms for longer than two weeks, talk to your dentist or health care provider. Visit your dentist regularly for oral cancer screenings and exams, even if you do not have teeth.

Oral Health During Pregnancy

Changes in your body when you are pregnant can cause gingivitis. If gingivitis is not treated, it may lead to loose or separating teeth (periodontitis).

The germs that cause tooth decay can be passed from your mouth to your newborn’s mouth through saliva. Mothers with healthy teeth and gums are less likely to pass these germs to their babies.

Dental care is safe during your entire pregnancy. Delaying dental treatment that you need can put you and your baby at risk.

Older Adults

Adults older than 65 are more likely to experience dental infections, tooth decay on the roots of the teeth, tooth loss, oral cancer, gum disease, dry mouth and fungal infections.

It is possible to keep your natural teeth for a lifetime if you brush, floss and visit your dentist regularly.

A few more tips to help older adults have healthy teeth:

  • Avoid dry mouth. Older adults can get dry mouth due to certain medications, chronic conditions or a history of radiation therapy. Dry mouth can lead to cavities, as well as difficulty in eating and speaking. You can avoid dry mouth by:
    • Drinking water often
    • Avoiding sugary foods and drinks, alcohol and caffeine
    • Using saliva substitutes, supplemental fluoride or the use of sugar-free gum
    • Using alternative medications if your dry mouth is caused by medicines

  • Take care of your dentures. If you have dentures you should continue to see your dentist regularly, even if you have no remaining natural teeth. To keep your dentures clean and hygienic:
    • Remove and rinse them after eating and at bedtime.
    • Brush denture surfaces daily with a soft toothbrush or denture brush. Place dentures in water when you remove them.
    • After you remove your dentures, brush your natural teeth with fluoridated toothpaste, and wipe the rest of your mouth with gauze or a soft toothbrush.
    • Do not sleep with your dentures in your mouth.
    • Ask your dentist whether your dentures need to be refitted or replaced.

Additional Resources

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