Tag Archives: oral health

Oral Cancer: To Screen or Not to Screen?

April is Oral Cancer Awareness Month, and this year, it’s involved some controversy.

It began with the release of a Consumer Reports article that included oral cancer screening among 8 “to avoid.”

“Most people,” they wrote, “don’t need the test unless they are at high risk, because the cancer is relatively uncommon.”

Not long after, a government task force said “that there is not enough published evidence to recommend for or against screening for oral cancer by primary care professionals.” Though dentists aren’t considered “primary care professionals” in this case, it’s an easy detail to miss.

So is CR right about when they say such testing isn’t necessary?

While it’s true that oral cancer used to be rather rare, with mostly smokers and heavy drinkers being at risk, that’s no longer the case. As we’ve noted before, rates have been skyrocketing, largely due to the human papillomavirus, or HPV. More than 35,000 new cases are diagnosed each year, and the 5 year survival rate is only 50%. Part of the reason for that last statistic is that many oral cancers are detected quite late – which is why dentists have been speaking up more and more about the benefits of early detection.

Unlike many other kinds of cancer screening, a screen for oral cancer is hardly invasive. At minimum, it involves a visual exam that can quickly and easily be done as part of a routine dental exam.

oral_cancer_check

Many also use technology to aid to visual screening. In our office, we have a device called VelScope, which uses a blue excitation light to make healthy areas appear fluorescent and problem areas, dark. This isn’t some extra procedure; once a year, it’s a part of every adult patient’s exam.

Brian Hill, executive director of the Oral Cancer Foundation, nicely sums up the case for screening:

It isn’t an invasive exam, there’s no radiation (no long-term exposure issue), it is painless, it’s usually free, and you’re already sitting in the dentist chair. Why would you not get it?

Indeed.

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HPV, Oral Cancer & Gum Disease

According to the CDC, more than 36,500 new cases of mouth and throat cancer are diagnosed every year. The 5 year survival rate is only about 50%.

But that rate is a whole lot better in cases where the cancer is detected early. That’s why, in my office, oral cancer screening – using VelScope – is included in every adult patient’s exam at least once a year.

A recent paper underscores why this matters.

Published last month in Head & Neck Oncology, the study confirms that

oral sex with multiple partners is one of the significant risk factors for oral cancer and oropharyngeal cancer. Young people, who increasingly practice oral sex especially with many partners, may be driving the increase in these cancers.

The culprit, as we’ve discussed before, is HPV (human papillomavirus). More known for causing cervical cancer, HPV is also a major cause of oral cancer. In fact, it’s surpassed tobacco as the leading risk factor: While smoking rates have plummetted, oral cancer rates have soared. And that risk increases along with sexual activity. According to the current research,

HPV infection is likely to be sexually acquired with increased risk of oropharyngeal cancer with either many (more than 26) lifetime vaginal-sex partners or six or more lifetime oral-sex partners.

Why is the mouth so vulnerable to HPV transmission?

It must be remembered that the oral cavity is a battlefield of healing mucosal micro abrasions which could in the right circumstances of altered local host defenses allow viral inculcation, infection and entrenchment leading to somatic genetic change. Changes in immuno-tolerance at these “special” immuno-modulating sites…combined with further environmental triggers then lead to cancerous changes. Basically, viral “genes load the gun and environment pulls the trigger.”

So maybe it’s no surprise that earlier research has suggested a connection between gum disease and oral cancer. The initial study found that precancerous lesions were twice as prevalent – and tumors, four times as prevalent – in those with periodontal disease than those with healthy gums. Inflammation appears to be the key factor, as lead author Dr. Mine Tezal recently discussed in an interview with Dr. Bicuspid about her ongoing research:

The results of our recent study suggested an association between chronic local inflammation and tumor HPV status of head and neck cancers. HPV infects only basal cells of the epithelium and gains access through breaks in the mucosa….

In this inflammatory environment, HPV is also shed in greater amounts leading to increased risk of viral transmission. If prospective studies in cancer-free populations confirm that chronic inflammation is a significant factor in the natural history of oral HPV infection, the public health implications would be important.

Thus, another cancer-preventive measure, she suggests, is to control inflammation in the mouth. And she likewise confirms what the Head & Neck Oconology paper showed: frequency of exposure to the virus matters. A lot.

HPV is a commonly transmitted virus and the majority of the infections are cleared rapidly by the immune system without causing disease. Rather than the mere presence of the virus at one time point, its persistence is critical for the development of HPV-related diseases. [emphasis added]

Learn more steps you can take to lower your risk of oral cancer from my earlier post “The Oral Cancer Pandemic & How You Can Keep Yourself Safe.”

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Why Does Poor Oral Health Remain Such a Problem?

Every so often, a new story comes out about the American struggle with oral health. Not long ago, for instance, we heard about how 20% of Americans have untreated decay and most have some history of cavity repair: 40% of children, 52% of teens and 75% of adults. Other studies say that by the age of 65, as many as 90% of adult Americans have experienced decay in their permanent teeth.

Why is it such an ongoing problem?

For one, there’s the standard American diet, which is chock full of sugars even before factoring in the sodas, juices and other sweet beverages we’ve come to drink more of. These, along with refined grains and other processed carbs, feed the pathogenic (disease-causing) microbes involved in oral disease. Sugar has other negative health effects, too, and makes us more susceptible to illnesses of all kinds.

Add to this lifestyle factors such as limited physical activity, high stress, poor and insufficient sleep, high drug use (including prescription drugs, alcohol and tobacco) and the like: all these factors similarly weaken the body’s innate self-regulating abilities. We become prone to illness – or at least suboptimal health.

Then there’s the matter of lack of knowledge about dental health and hygiene – a point made quite vividly by survey findings released by the American Dental Association last week. The headline on their press release?

Americans Score a D
on National Oral Health Quiz

The “quiz” was a series of true/false questions answered by nearly 1500 adults. Here’s what the ADA found – and the correct answers:

  • 90% think you should brush after every meal.
    Twice a day is the usual recommendation. And as mentioned, you should usually wait about a half hour after eating or drinking anything before you brush.
  • 65% think you should replace your toothbrush twice a year.
    Every three months is more like it.
  • 75% don’t know when a child should have his or her first dental visit.
    It should happen as soon as their first tooth erupts or no later than their first birthday.
  • 81% think sugar causes cavities.
    Only part true. As mentioned above, sugars feed pathogenic microbes in the mouth, but it’s the acidic waste they produce that actually damages the teeth.
  • 59% don’t know that those microbes can be passed from person to person.
    Like other infectious agents, oral bacteria can be passed along from one person to another – through things like kissing or sharing utensils.

Taking good care of your health – dental and systemic alike – means understanding how your body works. That’s why you may find your dentist or hygienist always explaining and teaching at your appointments – teaching that, unfortunately, some patients tune out for various reasons. But the teaching does matter, so we keep doing it. It’s central to our work. As I wrote before,

I can’t speak for all dentists, of course, but as a dentist, it’s important to me that you understand what we’re doing and why we’re doing it, as well as what you can do to gain and sustain more optimal oral health in general. After all, dentists are doctors, too – physicians whose specialty involves the teeth and oral cavity. You know how the word “doctor” came about? The English word comes from the Latin word docere, which means “to show, teach or cause to know.”

Teaching is part of our job.

Image by Jacob Barss-Bailey, via Flickr

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Raspberries, Piercings & Smoking – Oh, My!

So back to blogging, following up on a few older posts with more recent items I ran across during the hiatus…

Nontoxic Oral Cancer Treatments

We’ve looked at causes and early detection of oral cancer, but then what? Well, if a pair of recent studies holds up, we just might wind up treating precancerous lesions with raspberries.

“Part of the biggest clinical challenge,” says Dr. Susan Mallery in DrBicuspid’s report on her work, “is that we cannot currently identify which lesions will progress to oral cancer. Having nontoxic and effective treatment options available would be a great benefit to both patients and healthcare practitioners.”

In a 2010 study in Pharmaceutical Research, Dr. Mallery’s team found that applying a black raspberry gel directly to the lesions kept precancerous cells from becoming cancerous.

Based on the known mechanisms by which berry compounds function at the cellular levels, researchers speculate that the promising gel trial results reflect activation of two related pathways – apoptosis and terminal differentiation – in the premalignant cells. The ultimate benefit is that damaged cells don’t continue to divide and are therefore not retained.

A new study by the team, published in Molecular Pharmaceutics, showed similar efficacy of patch-delivered fenretinide, a synthetic vitamin A compound. The authors suggest that these “chemopreventives” could be used alone or in rotation, though the raspberry gel was enough for many.

“We’re getting a pretty good handle on what enzymes you need and how you metabolize the compounds, which will give a predictive indicator if you’re going to be a good responder to the raspberry gel alone,” Dr. Mallery said.

How Body Piercing Can Go Wrong

A while back, we looked at a few of the problems oral piercings can cause for your teeth and gums – from infection to pushing teeth out of alignment. But there are others.

Last month, the American Journal of Clinical Dermatology published a comprehensive review of “the medical consequences of body piercing.” First, there are those that can crop up regardless of where the piercing is.

Localized infections are common. Systemic infections such as viral hepatitis and toxic shock syndrome and distant infections such as endocarditis and brain abscesses have been reported. Other general complications include allergic contact dermatitis (e.g. from nickel or latex), bleeding, scarring and keloid formation, nerve damage, and interference with medical procedures such as intubation and blood/organ donation.

Then there are “site-specific” problems. Of concern to dentists:

Oral piercings may lead to difficulty speaking and eating, excessive salivation, and dental problems. Oral and nasal piercings may be aspirated or become embedded, requiring surgical removal.

What the report doesn’t go into, though, are concerns of biological, holistic or integrative practitioners over punching through acupuncture points and housing metal in the body. These can block and disturb energy along the meridians, which can damage health over time. You can learn more about the issue in this helpful overview.

Smokers Avoid the Dentist

Not long after we looked at why smokers need to kick their habit before getting treatment for gum disease – a disease that affects tobacco-users disproportionately – the CDC released some new and sad data on smokers, dental problems and dental care.

The CDC looked at 2008 survey responses from more than 16,000 adults ages 18 through 64.

More than a third of smokers reported having three or more dental problems, ranging from stained teeth to jaw pain, toothaches or infected gums. That was more than twice as much as people who never smoked.

But 20 percent of the smokers said they had not been to a dentist in at least five years. Only 10 percent of non-smokers and former smokers had stayed away that long, the study found.

Smokers seem to be aware their dental health is worse “but they’re not doing anything about it,” said Robin Cohen, a CDC statistician who co-authored the new report.

Why not?

Half said they couldn’t afford it, which makes sense: Smoking rates are higher among lower income groups, it’s an expensive habit and the amount and type of damage it causes can quickly inflate a dental bill. I suspect fear plays a role, too – fear of The Lecture, as noted before, and fear of finding out just how bad the problems are.

Unfortunately, the avoidance tactic usually ends up costing much more. According to a study in the Journal of Periodontology, patients with gum disease who did without periodontal treatment could only replace 4 teeth before they were spending more than they would have for a lifetime of periodontal care.

A lifetime!

“Feasible”?

Last, a headline – from a story about recent UK debates on the use of mercury amalgam in dentistry:

Well, amalgam fillings are sure as heck not feasible in any term!

Images by Lottery Monkey, jpmatth and Savannah Roberts, via Flickr

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4 Things You Might Not Know About Kids’ Oral Health

 

Some interesting facts as we wind down National Children’s Dental Health Month:

  1. Oral health affects how kids do in school.
    According to research published in the American Journal of Public Health, children with poor oral health are three times more likely to miss school because of dental pain and do tend worse academically. Missing class isn’t the issue. Kids who skip school to get routine preventive care show no drop in academic performance.
  2. Bacteria that cause tooth decay can colonize before the teeth come in.
    Earlier this year, scientists using DNA sequencing identified hundreds of bacterial species in the saliva of infants. These included S. mutans, which plays a very big role in the development of early childhood caries (EEC). Such findings underscore the need to begin oral hygiene early and take your child for their first dental visit shortly after their first tooth erupts or around their first birthday.
  3. Teething gels that contain benzocaine can be a problem.
    Benzocaine is a pain-killer commonly found in products such as Orajel, and the FDA recommends against it for teething infants. Why? Such gels raise the risk of methemoglobinemia, or “blue baby syndrome” – a blood disorder that keeps oxygen from getting to the body’s cells. Let your child use teething rings instead, or gently massage their gums with your finger.
  4. Secondhand smoke can damage children’s teeth and gums.
    Studies have found that children regularly exposed to secondhand smoke have more cavities, worse periodontal health and factors that exacerbate both problems: reduced salivary flow, more acidic saliva and higher levels of pathogenic bacteria.

Image by CarbonNYC, via Flickr

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Gum Disease? Smoker? Why You Need to Kick the Habit Before Getting Treatment

According to a recent poll, 1 in 10 smokers try to hide the fact from their physician. Most say they do this to avoid getting get lectured about their habit. And that’s understandable. After all, most smokers know they should quit. Many have tried. But the pleasures, rituals and effects (physical and mental) – and so, the addiction – often win out.

Since so much of tobacco’s damage isn’t readily visible in a routine medical visit, hiding the habit may be fairly easy – especially if you’re a light smoker, as the poll says many hiders are. Hiding it from a dentist, though, is tougher. Yes, you can mask bad breath for a while. Yes, you can diligently whiten your teeth. But you can’t mask things like bleeding gums, bone and tooth loss or cancerous lesions.

While most Americans have some degree of gum disease, the problem, as noted before, is much worse among smokers. According to research published in the Journal of Periodontology, over half of all cases may be due to smoking, and smokers are four times more likely to develop it. Why? Among other reasons, they “may be more than 10 times more likely than nonsmokers to harbor the bacteria that cause periodontal disease and are also more likely to have advanced periodontal disease.”

And no, it’s not just about cigarettes. You don’t get a free pass just because you smoke cigars or a pipe. The effect is similar. And the more you smoke, the greater the risk. Chewing tobacco carries its own oral health risks.

While gum disease can lead to bone and tooth loss, it’s not a necessary cause. Smoking alone is enough of a trigger, and its effects persist even after decades of living smoke-free. While we can try to spur new bone growth or at least slow the rate of loss, there’s currently no sure-fire fix.

Because of tobacco’s pernicious effects on both the hard and soft oral tissues, an increasing number of periodontists refuse to treat smokers until they kick the habit. Smokers may be surprised, frustrated, hurt or even offended by this. Obviously, they care enough about their oral health to consult with a specialist. But that care needs to motivate a successful quit, as well. After all, would you start repairing a flooded home while water was still gushing in? Or a fire-damaged home while flames are still raging?

For while periodontal treatment may help in the short term, long-term prognosis for smokers is poor. This is borne out both clinically and through research.

Among the latest research is a study just published in the American Journal of Medical Sciences. For it, the authors reviewed over 40 years of research on the impact of smoking on perio surgery outcomes. Of the two dozen studies that met their criteria, 2/3

showed that reductions in probing depth and gains in clinical attachment levels were compromised in smokers in comparison with nonsmokers. Three studies showed residual recession after periodontal surgical interventions to be significantly higher in smokers compared with nonsmokers. Three case reports showed periodontal healing to be uneventful in smokers.

But this can be new incentive to quit. No one wants to waste money on treatments not likely to help much or last long. So the choice becomes one of continued tobacco use and worsening oral health or quitting and getting help to regain periodontal health and keep as many natural teeth as long as possible. (After all, replacing teeth isn’t cheap either: a single implant can cost several thousand dollars!) For the good news is that although the risk of tooth loss persists, the effects of smoking on gum tissue are reversible. You can undo a lot of damage.

You just have to quit the cigs first.

Some natural, drug-free tips for quitting smoking

Abstracts on the tobacco-perio health link

 

Image by Marko Miloševic, via Flickr

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The Need to Talk About Oral Cancer

The British Dental Health Foundation recently distributed some interesting UK survey results on oral cancer. Reading their media release, I wondered: Would US survey results be similar?

What they found:

  • 88% of the public would like to be checked for oral cancer at their dental appointments.
  • 89% of dentists check for signs of oral cancer.
  • 68% use tools like VELscope to check for cancer.

More, every dentist surveyed – 100%! – said that they consider it their role to promote oral cancer awareness. And yet the BDHF found that

  • 84% of dentists do not explain the risks and symptoms of mouth cancer to their patients.
  • Almost half – 43% – do not provide oral cancer educational material to patients.

How do you effectively “promote awareness” then?

Earlier this year, I wrote about the sharp increase in oral cancer rates:

Once upon a time, oral cancer was a disease limited largely to tobacco users and heavy drinkers. For all others, the risks were thought to be very low, and the rate of disease remained fairly steady.

And then it started going up. And fast.

How fast?

Between 1974 and 2007, cases of white men with oral cancer shot up by 225%.

At the same time, there was a five fold increase in young adults with oral cancer.

Incidence has especially skyrocketed for women. In 1950, for every 6 men who developed oral cancer, only one woman did. Today, that ratio has narrowed to 2 : 1.

Clearly, oral cancer is something we need to be talking about, dentists and patients alike. So it’s no surprise that the BDHF’s media release about this survey focused so sharply on the need for better communication.

Chief Executive of the Foundation, Dr Nigel Carter…said: “Good communication in healthcare is vital for both the professional and the patient. In dentistry it allows the dentist to explain certain procedures, which can often be very technically-minded. The patient can then come back with any further questions they may have about the treatment, what is involved and what may happen afterwards. If either of these roles is ineffective then it can lead to a failure of communication.”

“Mouth cancer cases are increasing at a phenomenal rate due to choices in lifestyle such as smoking and alcohol. The disease, its symptoms and risk factors need to be discussed honestly and openly more often and there’s no better place to start than at a dental check-up.

“Knowing the risks and learning how to self-examine are key when it comes to the early detection of mouth cancer, where it can dramatically improve survival rates to 90 per cent. Without early detection, half will die – it really is a silent killer.”

If you’re not sure your dentist checks for cancer at your regular appointments, just ask. Ask your dentist to explain the procedures and what he or she looking for. Talk with him or her about any risk factors you may have and preventive steps you can take.

I can’t speak for all dentists, of course, but as a dentist, it’s important to me that you understand what we’re doing and why we’re doing it, as well as what you can do to gain and sustain more optimal oral health in general. After all, dentists are doctors, too – physicians whose specialty involves the teeth and oral cavity. You know how the word “doctor” came about? The English word comes from the Latin word docere, which means “to show, teach or cause to know.”

Teaching is part of our job.

To learn more about key risks and symptoms of oral cancer – as well as why we’re seeing so much more of it these days – see my earlier post, “The Oral Cancer Pandemic & How You Can Keep Yourself Safe.”

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Not Sleeping Well? Could Be You’re Bruxing

Today, we usually think of clenching and grinding teeth as a sign of stress or anger. And it often is. Consequently, we’ve seen quite a rise in this behavior since the onset of economic turmoil in 2008. But the phenomenon itself isn’t new at all. Our ancient ancestors did it, too, with the earliest records of it – via clay tablets found in the Mesopotamian Basin – dating back to about 3000 BC. Our modern word for the habit – bruxism – comes from the other side of the Mediterranean, though: from the Greek word ebruxya, which literally means “to gnash the teeth.”

Though statistics remain a little sketchy, estimates say about 5 to 20% of us are bruxers, with the higher number likely being closer to right. The habit is especially common during sleep. In fact, it’s the third most common sleep disorder after insomnia and snoring.

What’s more, those with another sleep disorder are more apt to be bruxers, too. Other risk factors include smoking, high caffeine intake, high alcohol intake, medication use and, of course, stress. But because bruxism is a habit, it can – and usually does – continue even after its cause has been dealt with. Among the problems it can lead to:

  • Poor quality sleep
  • Worn down teeth and fillings or other restorations
  • Fractured teeth
  • Inflammation and receding gums
  • Loose teeth and premature tooth loss
  • Persistent headaches and chronic jaw, face, neck and head pain
  • TMJ disorder

TMJ stands for temporomandibular joint, and you have one on each side of your head. Together, they’re the hinge that lets you open and close your mouth – something than can be hard or painful to do if the joints are damaged or dysfunctional. (To see why this may be so, check out these videos showing what both healthy and dysfunctional TM joints look like in action.) You may experience clicking, grinding or pain in your jaw joints, or ringing or buzzing in your ears. “When the joint puts pressure on the nerves, muscles and blood vessels that pass near the head,” says Dr. Nigel Carter of the British Dental Health Foundation, “it can often result in headaches and migraines.”

Even so, adds Dr. Carter,

The cause of your headaches could actually be the way your teeth meet when your jaws bite together, otherwise known as dental occlusion. If you do suffer from continual headaches or migraines, especially first thing in the morning, pain behind your eyes, sinus pains and pains in the neck or shoulders, you should consider visiting your dentist, as well as a doctor, as soon as possible.

To check my patients’ occlusion, I use an imaging system called Tek-Scan, which shows how the teeth come together. It lets us see places where your bite may be “off” or where there’s an imbalance of force when you close your jaw. Once we’ve found these imbalances, we can determine the best solutions for correcting them.

For TMJ issues, we have another diagnostic tool: BioJVA (joint vibrational analysis). BioJVA lets us take fast, non-invasive and repeatable measurements of your TMJ function by determining the amount and kind of vibration at the joints. With it, we can diagnose dysfunction more specifically, and, because it’s repeatable, we can easily measure your progress through treatment.

Splint therapy is one of the most common and conservative measures taken to bring relief and readjust the jaw and related musculature. You may have seen or heard of over-the-counter “night guards” meant to cushion the forces of clenching and grinding, the main virtue of which is their low cost. Unfortunately, they’re often of little help to serious bruxers, who pretty quickly grind right through them. Their fit can often be poor, as well, causing problems such as discomfort, damaged gums or increased clenching.

A custom splint, on the other hand, will fit your mouth precisely and will normally last much, much longer than an over-the-counter device. Here’s what one of my patients had to say after just the first week of wearing a night guard we provided him:

But wait, you say. If I’m sleeping, how can I know if I’m grinding my teeth? Here are a few questions to ask yourself:

  • Are your jaw muscles or neck achy when you wake up?
  • Is it hard to open your mouth first thing in the morning?
  • Do the biting surfaces of your teeth look worn down?
  • Do you have frequent headaches?
  • Has your bed partner ever complained about you making grinding noises while you sleep or told you about any mouth movements he or she has seen you make while sleeping?

As is the way with such questionnaires, the more “yesses,” the more likely it is that bruxing is an issue for you, in which case you should consult your dentist for help with remedies and relief…and a better night’s sleep.

Image by justin, via Flickr

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Exercise: Good for Muscles, Heart, Lungs & Yes, Teeth & Gums, Too!

If you’re unfamiliar with holistic approaches to health, you might be surprised by the fact that what’s good for general health is also good for your teeth and gums. Conventional wisdom says dentistry and medicine are two separate fields, not specializations within a single, broad field. So you see a dentist for your teeth and a physician for the rest of your body, as though one had nothing to do with the other.

Funny – how easily we can forget that the mouth is connected with the rest of the body!

Even physical exercise – or the lack of it – affects more that just our muscles, lungs and heart. Those are just the three areas where we feel it most. While we might get a “runner’s high,” we don’t really feel exercise in our brains, even as exercise has been shown to keep the brain fit and improve thinking. Likewise, we don’t feel exercise in our teeth and gums, but there are, in fact, established links between physical fitness and oral health.

For instance, check out the 2005 Journal of Dentistry study, which found that regular exercise lowers the risk of periodontitis (gum disease):

  • Never-smokers who exercised regularly “were about 54% less likely to have periodontitis” than those who didn’t exercise.
  • Former smokers who exercised regularly had a 74% lower risk.

Unsurprisingly, exercise did nothing to lower the risk of gum disease for smokers.

We see similar results when obesity is factored into the equation. For instance, one paper published last year in the Journal of Periodontology found that those with the lowest body mass index (BMI) and highest measure of physical fitness – gauged by percent body fat and maximum oxygen consumption – were less at risk for periodontal disease than other study subjects. “This study suggests,” wrote the research team, “that obesity and physical fitness may have some interactive effect on periodontal health status.”

In fact, there are three positive factors – “health-enhancing behaviors” – that have been shown repeatedly to reduce the risk of gum disease. They’re spelled out in the abstract of one last study I’d like to draw your attention to, also from the Journal of Periodontology:

After controlling for age, gender, race\ethnicity, cigarette smoking, other tobacco products, education, diabetes, poverty index, census region, acculturation, vitamin use, time since the last dental visit, dental calculus, and gingival bleeding, a 1-unit increase in the number of the three health-enhancing behaviors was associated with a 16% reduction in the prevalence of periodontitis (odds ratio [OR] = 0.84; 95% confidence interval [CI]: 0.77 to 0.93). Individuals who maintained normal weight, engaged in the recommended level of exercise, and had a high-quality diet were 40% less likely to have periodontitis compared to individuals who maintained none of these health-enhancing behaviors. [emphasis added]

So what are you waiting for? Get out there and get moving!

Images by Mait Jüriado and BBluesman, via Flickr

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The Oral Cancer Pandemic & How You Can Keep Yourself Safe

Once upon a time, oral cancer was a disease limited largely to tobacco users and heavy drinkers. For all others, the risks were thought to be very low, and the rate of disease remained fairly steady.

And then it started going up. And fast.

How fast?

Between 1974 and 2007, cases of white men with oral cancer shot up by 225%.

At the same time, there was a five fold increase in young adults with oral cancer.

Incidence has especially skyrocketed for women. In 1950, for every 6 men who developed oral cancer, only one woman did. Today, that ratio has narrowed to 2 : 1.

What happened?

HPV – human papilloma virus. This sexually transmitted virus, most known for causing cervical cancer, is now a major cause of oral cancer. Over half of us are at risk for contracting HPV at some point in our lives.

Perhaps you saw the recent episode of Dr. Oz dealing with these issues. If you missed it, you can watch it here – and I highly recommend that you do. He gives an excellent, plain-language overview of the issue, including discussion of warning signs/early symptoms and demonstrations of the different exams your dentist should perform so that if you do develop cancer, it can be caught and treated as early as possible.

As a rule, I screen each of my adult patients for cancer once a year using a tool called VELscope. This technology lets us look beneath the mouth’s soft tissues for lesions and abnormal growths that may indicate beginning oral cancers. VELscope testing is completely non-invasive and painless. We just aim a blue excitation light at the tissues and see how they respond: healthy areas appear fluorescent and problem areas, dark. I’ve used this device in my practice for several years now – not as an “extra” but as an essential.

If VELscope detects a problem, the next thing we do is an oral CDX brush test, which Dr. Oz’s guest dentist describes as a “pap smear for the mouth.” This procedure, too, is non-invasive and painless. We merely use a special brush to take a sample of cells from the problem area(s), save them on a slide and send them to a lab for analysis.

You can see these early detection methods demonstrated in Part 4 and Part 5 of the Dr. Oz video – screening tools that help save lives by letting us find the cancer early enough for effective treatment.

Of course, the best course of action is to prevent the cancer from occurring in the first place. Key things you can do to lower your risk:

  • Be sure your dentist gives you an oral cancer screening at least once a year if not at every visit. If he or she doesn’t – or if you’re not sure – ask for one.
  • Limit alcohol use.
  • If you smoke or chew tobacco, quit. (And if you don’t, don’t start.)
  • Practice safer sex. Always use condoms and/or dental dams, or completely abstain from oral sex.

Also be aware of these warning signs and contact your dentist immediately if you develop one or more of them:

  • A white or red patch in your mouth, or a sore that doesn’t heal within two weeks
  • Sore throat or ear pain, typically on just one side of the head, that doesn’t go away within two weeks
  • A lump in your neck
  • Voice changes or hoarseness that last more than a week

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