While the effectiveness of chemotherapy and radiation have contributed to rising cancer survival rates, they can still have an adverse effect on the rest of the body. That includes the mouth: these treatments can damage healthy tissues like the salivary glands. The decrease in saliva flow increases the risk of tooth decay or periodontal (gum) disease.
While overcoming cancer is certainly the patient’s main health priority, it’s important for them to tend to their oral health. The best approach often involves a three-way partnership between patient, dentist and family caregivers all doing their part to keep the patient’s teeth, gums and mouth healthy during cancer treatment.
Here’s what each “partner” can do to protect a cancer patient’s oral health during treatment.
The dentist. To minimize dental disease odds, patients should enter cancer treatment with their teeth and gums in the best shape possible. Before beginning treatment, then, the dentist can assess their oral health status and recommend a treatment plan for any existing disease or condition. The dentist can also monitor a patient’s oral health during the treatment period.
The patient. Patients can do the most to protect their oral health by removing disease-causing plaque buildup with daily brushing and flossing, as well as maintaining their regular schedule of dental cleanings (if possible). They should also attempt to reduce dry mouth, a potential consequence of cancer treatment, by consuming more water and using saliva boosters like Xylitol-sweetened gums and mints. A nutritious diet is also important for protecting oral health.
The caregiver. Many cancer patients depend on family or friends to aid them during treatment. One of the best things a caregiver can do is act as a liaison between the patient and their medical and dental providers. When it comes to oral health, caregivers should be on the alert for any mouth changes including tooth pain, gum swelling or bleeding, foul breath and other signs of disease.
Focusing on oral health can be a daunting challenge for patients during their fight with cancer. But with help from their other partners, they can come out of this fight with their teeth, gums and mouth in good health.
If you would like more information on oral care during cancer treatment, please contact us or schedule an appointment for a consultation. You can also learn more about this topic by reading the Dear Doctor magazine article “Oral Health During Cancer Treatment.”
On the big screen, Australian-born actress Margot Robbie may be best known for playing devil-may-care anti-heroes—like Suicide Squad member Harley Quinn and notorious figure skater Tonya Harding. But recently, a discussion of her role in Peter Rabbit proved that in real life, she’s making healthier choices. When asked whether it was hard to voice a character with a speech impediment, she revealed that she wears retainers in her mouth at night, which gives her a noticeable lisp.
“I actually have two retainers,” she explained, “one for my bottom teeth which is for grinding my teeth, and one for my top teeth which is just so my teeth don't move.”
Clearly Robbie is serious about protecting her dazzling smile. And she has good reasons for wearing both of those retainers. So first, let’s talk about retainers for teeth grinding.
Also called bruxism, teeth grinding affects around 10 percent of adults at one time or another, and is often associated with stress. If you wake up with headaches, sore teeth or irritated gums, or your sleeping partner complains of grinding noises at night, you may be suffering from nighttime teeth grinding without even being aware of it.
A type of retainer called an occlusal guard is frequently recommended to alleviate the symptoms of bruxism. Typically made of plastic, this appliance fits comfortably over your teeth and prevents them from being damaged when they rub against each other. In combination with stress reduction techniques and other conservative treatments, it’s often the best way to manage teeth grinding.
Orthodontic retainers are also well-established treatment devices. While appliances like braces or aligners cause teeth to move into better positions, retainers are designed to keep teeth from moving—helping them to stay in those positions. After active orthodontic treatment, a period of retention is needed to allow the bite to stabilize. Otherwise, the teeth can drift right back to their old locations, undoing the time and effort of orthodontic treatment.
So Robbie has the right idea there too. However, for those who don’t relish the idea of wearing a plastic appliance, it’s often possible to bond a wire retainer to the back surfaces of the teeth, where it’s invisible. No matter which kind you choose, wearing a retainer can help keep your smile looking great for many years to come.
If you have questions about teeth grinding or orthodontic retainers, please contact our office or schedule a consultation. You can read more in the Dear Doctor magazine articles “Teeth Grinding” and “The Importance of Orthodontic Retainers.”
Ever wonder just exactly what causes cavities? Once upon a time, “Toothworms” — miniscule, yet relentless pests — were thought to be responsible for this widespread malady. This belief persisted from ancient times through the 17th Century; William Shakespeare even made reference to the baneful beasts in his play Much Ado about Nothing. (“What, sigh for a toothache? [It] is but a humor or a worm.”) Today, however, we know why no one ever observed an honest-to-goodness toothworm: it’s because they’re much too tiny to see with the naked eye.
Actually, it isn’t worms, but much smaller organisms that cause tooth decay. These harmful plaque bacteria (along with many helpful microorganisms) live in the mouth, and build up on surfaces of the teeth when they aren’t cleaned properly. They feed on sugar in the diet, and release substances that erode tooth enamel, which causes small holes called cavities. Cavities, in turn, are what’s responsible for most toothaches.
While we may scoff at old legends, one fact remains: Even today, according to the National Institutes of Health, tooth decay is the number one chronic disease of both children and adults; and it’s almost entirely preventable. We can’t blame it on toothworms — but what can we do about it?
Glad you asked! The best way to avoid decay is through prevention. That means brushing your teeth twice a day with a fluoride toothpaste, and flossing them every day. It also means eating a balanced diet and avoiding acidic and sugary foods — like soda, some juices, and sweet, sticky snacks. If you do consume these types of foods, limit them to mealtimes; that gives your saliva enough time in between to neutralize the acids naturally. And, of course, make an appointment see us twice a year for a complete check-up and professional cleaning.
If you do begin to notice the symptoms of tooth decay (toothache, for example) it’s important to come in to the dental office right away, so we can treat the problem before it gets worse. Prompt action can often help save a tooth that might otherwise be lost. Besides filling the cavity, we may be also able to recommend ways to help prevent the disease from affecting other teeth. And if you need a more extensive procedure to relieve the problem — such as a root canal — we can make sure you get the appropriate treatment.
We’ve come a long way since the “toothworm” days — but we can still do a lot more to make tooth decay a thing of the past.
If you would like more information about tooth decay and cavity prevention, please contact us or schedule an appointment. You can learn more in the Dear Doctor magazine article “Tooth Decay — The World’s Oldest & Most Widespread Disease” and “Tooth Decay — How To Assess Your Risk.”
Visiting the dentist for regular cleanings and needed dental work can do wonders for keeping your teeth and gums in tip-top shape. But if you’ve seen or heard about infections occurring in healthcare facilities, you might be a little concerned that your trip to the dentist might expose you to one. Don’t be! You and your family will be out of harm’s way because your dental team has made protection from viruses, bacteria and other infectious agents a top priority. To highlight this effort, the American Academy of Oral Medicine commemorates each September as “National Dental Infection Control Awareness Month.”
As a healthcare provider, dentists have a legal, moral and ethical obligation to protect patients (and staff members too) from infection through what are known as “standard precautions.” These include barrier protection, disinfection and sterilization practices, and safe disposal of contaminated items.
But dentists and their professional organizations don’t stop with the minimum requirements—they’re committed to a higher standard when it comes to infection control. The bedrock for this commitment is adherence to an infection control checklist developed by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC), updated regularly. This in-depth checklist recommends several best practices and protocols, including:
- Creating a written infection control plan that outlines all practices and procedures to be followed by the provider and staff;
- Barrier protection, including the wearing of disposable gloves, face shields or gowns by providers as appropriate;
- Proper disposal methods for used items;
- Proper hand washing and other hygiene practices before and after treatment procedures;
- Proper disinfection and sterilization of instruments and equipment;
Most licensing bodies also require that dentists and their staff undergo continuing education in infection control, usually every two years.
Because you as a patient have a right to know the details about your medical and dental care, you have public access to infection control guidelines and requirements. You can also ask your dental provider about what steps they take to protect you and your family from infectious disease. They’ll be glad to answer any questions you have to put your mind at ease about your safety.
The dental profession’s commitment to patient and staff safety has drastically reduced the risk of any infection. Rest assured, your dental visit will be beneficial for your oral health—and safe for your general health too.
If you would like more information about infection control in the dental office, please contact us or schedule a consultation. To learn more, read the Dear Doctor magazine articles “Infection Control in the Dental Office” and “Shingles, Herpes Zoster: A One-Sided Facial Rash.”
Although dental care has made incredible advances over the last century, the underlying approach to treating tooth decay has changed little. Today’s dentists treat a decayed tooth in much the same way as their counterparts from the early 20th Century: remove all decayed structure, prepare the tooth and fill the cavity.
Dentists still use that approach not only because of its effectiveness, but also because no other alternative has emerged to match it. But that may change in the not-too-distant future according to recent research.
A research team at Kings College, London has found that a drug called Tideglusib, used for treating Alzheimer’s disease, appears to also stimulate teeth to regrow some of its structure. The drug seemed to cause stem cells to produce dentin, one of the tooth’s main structural layers.
During experimentation, the researchers drilled holes in mouse teeth. They then placed within the holes tiny sponges soaked with Tideglusib. They found that within a matter of weeks the holes had filled with dentin produced by the teeth themselves.
Dentin regeneration isn’t a new phenomenon, but other occurrences of regrowth have only produced it in tiny amounts. The Kings College research, though, gives rise to the hope that stem cell stimulation could produce dentin on a much larger scale. If that proves out, our teeth may be able to create restorations by “filling themselves” that are much more durable and with possibly fewer complications.
As with any medical breakthrough, the practical application for this new discovery may be several years away. But because the medication responsible for dentin regeneration in these experiments with mouse teeth is already available and in use, the process toward an application with dental patients could be relatively short.
If so, a new biological approach to treating tooth decay may one day replace the time-tested filling method we currently use. One day, you won’t need a filling from a dentist—your teeth may do it for you.
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