Tobacco use and heavy alcohol drinking are considered the main causes of oral, head, and neck cancer. Recently, poor dental care, common in people with oral cancer, has been added to the list of risk factors.
Taking Care of Your Teeth: Why it Matters
Many studies have looked at the possible connection between the lack of proper dental care and oral cancer. A study published in 2007 in the American Journal of Epidemiology found that poor condition of the mouth and missing teeth were indeed among the causes of head and neck cancer. The study was the largest ever to examine the link between poor oral care, oral cancer, and other head and neck cancers. On the flip side, the researchers also found that frequent dental care lowered the risk of oral cancer.
Dental care is also an important part of the treatment for oral cancer. If you’ve been diagnosed with oral cancer, you should know that dental problems such as gum disease, cavities, and poorly fitting dentures can get worse during your oral cancer treatment. X-ray treatment in particular can harm the salivary glands, which supply the saliva that moistens and protects your mouth from infection. Pain from diseased teeth and gums can make it difficult for you to complete oral cancer treatment.
Good Dental Care: Tips to Help Prevent or Manage Oral Cancer
- Avoid all tobacco products and alcohol. The combination of alcohol and tobacco is the most important cause of oral cancer. Mouthwash with a high alcohol content should be avoided if your mouth is sore and dry from oral cancer treatment; reading the fine print on the label will tell you the percentage.
- See your dentist before starting oral cancer treatment. If you are going to be treated for oral cancer, you should have a complete dental exam by a dentist who is experienced in oral cancer dental care. Many cancer treatment centers include a dental cancer specialist as part of the team. Your dentist should take care of all potential dental problems before you start treatment.
- Visit your dentist regularly. This will help prevent conditions that may lead to oral cancer and allow your dentist to spot any signs of oral cancer early on, when it’s best treated. If you’ve already been treated for oral cancer, you should be followed by a dental oncologist once a year for the first few years.
- Practice good dental care at home. Brush your teeth and floss gently after every meal. Avoid flossing that causes your gums to bleed. Consider using a pulsating water device; these “irrigators” remove food particles that can irritate gums and cause infection. If your mouth is sore from oral cancer treatment, try rinsing your mouth with a solution of one quart warm water, one teaspoon table salt and one teaspoon baking soda. Ask your dentist to recommend an alcohol-free mouth rinse with fluoride that you can buy at your pharmacy to help avoid cavities.
The bottom line: Gum disease, cavities, broken teeth, crowns or fillings, and poorly fitting dentures are all the results of poor dental care, a cause of oral cancer; and oral cancer treatment can cause all these dental problems to get worse. Regular dental care can help prevent oral cancer from starting or coming back. Protect yourself against oral cancer by maintaining a good daily oral health routine at home and through regular visits to your dentist.