If you’re a tobacco user, you’re at increased risk of gum disease, cancers, and a range of other conditions. Alas, the pleasures of enjoying your cigarette break or the occasional fine cigar comes with health risks. While the best way of preventing these health complications is to quit or cut back on your tobacco use, not all of us are ready to take that step, and some of us just want to keep smoking.
When I’m talking to my patients, I always remind them that prevention is key to lifelong health – knowing what symptoms to look for and making self-examinations part of your regular oral health practice will ensure you catch any potential problems without waiting for your regularly scheduled dental appointments.
Here are some of the problems you should be looking out for:
Periodontal (Gum) Disease
Smokers are four times more likely to develop periodontal disease, which occurs when plaque buildup targets the tissues making up the gums, particularly the alveolar bone (where your teeth are embedded), the periodontal ligaments (which support the roots of your teeth), and the cementum (the surface connecting the tooth and alveolar bone). This bacterial infection causes tooth loss due to the growth of bacteria, breakdown of soft tissue and bone, and the development of deep pockets between your teeth and gums.
Leukoplakia is when thickened, white patches form on your gums, the insides of your cheeks, the bottom of your mouth and, occasionally, your tongue. These patches can't be scraped off and can be a warning sign for cancer. These need to be checked by your dentist or a physician.
Difficulty Recovering From Dental Procedures
Smokers often have a difficult time recovering from dental procedures, particularly periodontal treatments, dental implants, and tooth extractions. One particular challenge is the development of dry socket after tooth extractions – the severe pain that occurs is caused by exposed bone and nerve endings. Another problem is excessive bleeding, so do not smoke after oral surgery…smokers heal more slowly.
Black Hairy Tongue
A temporary, and typically harmless, oral condition, black hairy tongue is usually the result of a buildup of dead skin cells on the papillae of the tongue that contain taste buds. The dark furry appearance can be accompanied by altered taste, halitosis, or a gagging or tickling sensation.
- Decreased sensation of taste and smell
The good news is early detection (paired with regular dental hygiene) can minimize the effects of these conditions. While your regular dental appointments are essential for regular examinations, I always teach my patients how to do a self-examination – it will ensure you catch any problems as early as possible.
Grab a mirror and let’s take a look:
- Look at yourself in the mirror! Are both sides of your face and neck fairly symmetrical? Good.
- Check the skin on your face and neck. Look for any changes in colour, moles that have changed, lumps or sores. These can grow quickly, so regular self-exams are important.
- Use your fingertips to feel for lumps, bumps, or sore spots on either side of your neck. Report anything new or unusual to your doctor.
- Place your finger on your “Adam’s Apple” and swallow - it should move up and down (not from side to side) and hoarseness should last no longer than two weeks.
- Remove any dentures, retainers or appliances from your mouth.
- Using a flashlight, inspect the inside of your mouth. If you can, use a small mirror inside your mouth for a closer look.
- Look at the roof of your mouth for changes in colour or lumps; press gently with your index finger to find any changes.
- Check the floor of your mouth and feel it with your finger. As with the other regions, you should be looking for changes in colour, swelling, and change in shape.
- Use a piece of gauze between your finger and thumb to pull out your tongue and examine it closely, feeling it with your finger.
- Inspect your gums for colour change, lumps, or tenderness. Have you noticed any sores lasting more than two weeks? Talk to your dentist.
- Pull your upper lip and and then your lower lip down, checking for changes. Squeezing gently, feel for sensitivity, lumps, bumps, and sore spots. If there is any pain, loss of feeling or unexplained bleeding, report it promptly.
- Gently run your index finger over your upper and lower gums.
And that’s that. If you find anything unusual, talk to your dental or medical professional as soon as possible. Adding a monthly self-examination to your regular oral health routine is a great way to minimize the risks of oral health problems developing.