If you have ever used tobacco or been close to someone who does, you know how it can cause bad breath and stained teeth. But there is more to oral health than these visible, cosmetic drawbacks. Smoking and spit tobacco use are associated with many different diseases, conditions and risks to your mouth and gums. They may cause problems with how well you respond to dental care. Here are some common or severe oral problems caused by or linked to tobacco use.
Both smoking and spit tobacco use can lead to cancer of the mouth or throat. A similar common condition of the tissues in the mouth frequently seen in tobacco users is called “leukoplakia” (loo-co-pláy-key-ah). This is a white, somewhat thickened patch that cannot be scraped off. It can be found on the cheek, lip, tongue or gums. This sore sometimes changes and become cancerous. Moderate to heavy alcohol use combined with tobacco use also greatly increases the risk of having oral cancer.
Infection in gum tissues (periodontal disease) makes the bone that supports the teeth recede, resulting in loose teeth and eventually tooth loss. Many smokers end up having gum disease problems. A great deal of regular and intensive dental care is then necessary to maintain a healthy mouth. Spit tobacco users find that the area of their mouth where they frequently place the tobacco gets wrinkled, white in appearance and the gums pull away or recede from the teeth.
Most smokers know the senses of taste and smell are affected by tobacco smoke. Food will not taste as good and the ability to smell is decreased. Fortunately, these senses are some of the first things to return, often within a few days of quitting smoking.
Many other dental problems are associated with tobacco use. They include more cavities, changes in the tissues of the mouth, sinus infections, lip and palate (roof of the mouth) burns, and decreased saliva or dry mouth. Usually tobacco users need to visit the dental office more often and need more dental care. The gum tissues need special attention, like cleaning stain, plaque and calculus (tartar) buildup from the teeth and out from under the gums. Many tobacco users do not respond well to dental care and take longer to heal after dental surgery. Healing is slower because tobacco impairs the immune (defence) system.
Spit tobacco is also referred to as chewing tobacco, snuff, or smokeless tobacco. It is also a major cause of many oral conditions and diseases. Many people think of spit tobacco as a safer form of tobacco, but nothing could be further from the truth. Although more people use cigarettes, spit tobacco is the only type of tobacco product that has had increased sales in Canada in the last few years. Certain areas of the country have high percentages of children, youths and adults who experiment with and use spit tobacco.
If you don’t use tobacco now, don’t start. If you do use tobacco, consider quitting. At your next dental appointment, say that you use tobacco and ask that your mouth be checked for any signs of related problems. Your dentist or dental hygienist may also be able to help you with quitting tobacco or assist in finding a program in the community where you can go for help. You can also talk to your family doctor about how to quit.
If you have used tobacco regularly, have your mouth checked frequently. Also be on the lookout for any changes that might indicate a problem. Check your mouth closely after you brush your teeth and see your dentist right away if you notice:
Careful care and attention to your mouth, frequent dental examinations, and quitting tobacco use will all help to keep your mouth and your whole body healthy. Tasting “life without tobacco” greatly enhances the chance of having a healthy smile.