Nowadays it is unlikely that smokers are unaware of the health risks associated with their habit (the graphic images on the packaging leave little to the imagination); however, some people don’t know of the potentially long-term dental issues that can occur. Not only is smoking associated with bad breath and discoloured, stained teeth that don’t respond to whitening, but there is also an increased risk of developing tooth decay and gum (periodontal) disease in smokers and an increased chance of developing oral cancers.
A significant problem with smoking is that it tends the disguise the damage taking place to teeth and gums. Usually, infected gums are red, puffy and bleed when brushed. Smoker’s gums are not like this – they are pale and thin and do not bleed as easily, so the early signs of gum inflammation go unnoticed!
The nicotine in cigarette smoke acts on the blood vessels, causing them to contract. This contraction causes a reduction in the blood supply to the gums and bone, resulting in masking of the signs of disease and reduces the body’s ability to combat disease and infection.
Nicotine affects your saliva and reduces the way that it can protect the teeth. Saliva can become thick and slow moving, reducing its ability to neutralise dietary acids and flush away food debris. This change to saliva is why some heavy smokers can get decay even though they may be brushing and flossing effectively.
Gum (periodontal) disease
Smokers are six (6) times more likely to have severe gum (periodontal disease) than non-smokers. Periodontal disease is a chronic inflammation that causes progressive destruction of the bone and gum tissues that support and “hold in” the teeth. Every individual progresses differently, but if left untreated, it can result in movement and looseness of teeth, infection and pain. The teeth may become so loose or painful that they require extraction.
Early periodontal disease is painless, and non-smoking patients become aware of the problem when gums start to bleed with regular brushing and flossing. In smokers, the warning signs like bleeding gums are disguised, so the condition can become quite advanced before there is any indication that anything is going wrong. Gum disease is challenging to treat, requiring regular professional maintenance as well as diligent home care. This challenge can be increased in smokers as smoking reduces the body’s ability to heal.
Young adults who smoke and drink alcohol also increase their risk of developing oral cancer by 15 times. Every day three (3) Australians are diagnosed with oral cancer and more than 80% smoke cigarettes.
Heavy drinking, defined as more than four (4) standard drinks per occasion, in combination with smoking, also dramatically increases the risk of developing oral cancer.
The good news is that with treatment and technological advances, early detection can mean a 90% chance of survival, with most abnormalities detected during routine dental visits. Of course, decreasing your risk by not smoking is always a better option!