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.”
Say “bacteria,” especially in the same sentence with “disease” or “infection,” and you may trigger an immediate stampede for the hand sanitizer. The last thing most people want is to come in contact with these “menacing” microorganisms.
If that describes you, however, you’re too late. If you’re of adult age, there are already 100 trillion of these single-celled organisms in and on your body, outnumbering your own cells 10 to 1. But don’t panic: Of these 10,000-plus species only a handful can cause you harm—most are either harmless or beneficial, including in your mouth.
Thanks to recent research, we know quite a bit about the different kinds of bacteria in the mouth and what they’re doing. We’ve also learned that the mouth’s microbiome (the interactive environment of microscopic organisms in a particular location) develops over time, especially during our formative years. New mothers, for example, pass on hundreds of beneficial species of bacteria to their babies via their breast milk.
As our exposure to different bacteria grows, our immune system is also developing—not only fighting bacteria that pose a threat, but also learning to recognize benevolent species. All these factors over time result in a sophisticated, interrelated bacterial environment unique to every individual.
Of course, it isn’t all sweetness and light in this microscopic world. The few harmful oral bacteria, especially those that trigger tooth decay or periodontal (gum) disease, can cause enormous, irreparable damage to the teeth and gums. It’s our goal as dentists to treat these diseases and, when necessary, fight against harmful microorganisms with antibacterial agents and antibiotics.
But our growing knowledge of this “secret world” of bacteria is now influencing how we approach dental treatment. A generalized application of antibiotics, for example, could harm beneficial bacteria as well as harmful ones. In trying to do good we may run the risk of disrupting the mouth’s microbiome balance—with adverse results on a patient’s long-term oral health.
The treatment strategies of the future will take this into account. While stopping dental disease will remain the top priority, the treatments of the future will seek to do it without harming the delicate balance of the mouth’s microbiome.
If you would like more information on the role of bacteria in oral health, 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 “New Research Show Bacteria Essential to Health.”
Tooth enamel, to play on a phrase from Shakespeare, is made of “sterner stuff.” The strongest substance in the body, enamel can take years of biting and chewing and keep on going.
It does have one nemesis, though—mouth acid, which can soften and erode enamel’s mineral content. This is less of a concern if you have healthy saliva flow, because saliva neutralizes acid in thirty minutes to an hour after an acid attack and can also help re-mineralize the enamel. Daily brushing and flossing also help curb mouth acid by reducing the bacteria that produces it.
But as effective as saliva is at neutralizing mouth acidity, it can be overwhelmed by outside acid derived through certain foods and beverages. In the past couple of decades, at least two of these acid sources have grown in prominence: energy drinks and, believe it or not, sports drinks.
Just how acidic are they? The pH scale runs from 1 to 14, with acidity on the low end and alkalinity on the higher (7 is neutral). Tooth enamel begins dissolving below 5.5. Laboratory tests have pegged the average pH of energy drinks at 3.05 and sports drinks, 2.91.
Because of their acidity, frequent energy or sports drink consumption will bring mouth pH into the danger zone for tooth enamel. It’s even more likely if these beverages are sipped over an extended period, which can prevent saliva from getting ahead of any newly introduced acid.
Keeping your distance from these beverages is probably the safest bet. But if you do imbibe occasionally, follow these common sense tips:
- Avoid sipping the beverage over long periods—and try to limit drinking them to meal times;
- After drinking a beverage, wash your mouth out with water and wait an hour to brush to give your saliva time to neutralize any acid.
- Practice consistent, daily brushing and flossing.
Above all, keep a healthy respect for acidic foods and beverages like energy and sports drinks and don’t overuse them. Your tooth enamel will appreciate it.
If you would like more information on the effect of sports and energy drinks on dental health, 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 “Think Before You Drink Sports and Energy Beverages.”
Root canal treatments are an essential part of dental care — countless teeth with deep decay would be lost each year without it. Now, this traditional dental care procedure is advancing to a new level of precision through lasers.
Root canal treatments have a simple goal: access a tooth's infected pulp and root canals, clean out the infected tissue and fill the empty pulp chamber and canals with a special filling. Once filled, the access is sealed and a porcelain crown later placed for additional protection against re-infection.
In the traditional procedure, we perform these steps manually with a dental drill and hand instruments. We may also need to remove a good portion of tooth structure, both healthy and infected tissue. A laser, on the other hand, is a highly focused beam of light with the ability to interact with healthy and infected tissues differently: destroying infected tissue while having no effect on nearby healthy tissue. The end result: we may be able to remove less healthy tissue with lasers than with the conventional procedure.
Lasers are also helpful with softening and precisely molding the filling material within each canal's particular shape. And, early reports seem to indicate a higher degree of comfort for patients (less drill noise and need for anesthesia), less bleeding and faster recovery times than the conventional approach.
But as a tool for root canal treatments, lasers do have a couple of disadvantages. While light travels in a straight line, root canals are rarely straight — conventional instruments with curved designs usually accommodate odd canal shapes better than a laser. Lasers can also raise temperatures within a tooth that can damage healthy tissue, both within the pulp and outward into the dentin.
Still, lasers for root canal treatments appear promising with some dentists using a combination of lasers and manual techniques to garner benefits from both approaches. While you won't see lasers replacing the traditional root canal treatment anytime soon, the future looks bright for more efficient ways to treat deep tooth decay.
Although techniques and materials have changed, dentists still follow basic principles for treating tooth decay that date from the late 19th Century. And for good reason: They work. These principles first developed by Dr. G.V. Black—the "father of modern dentistry"—are widely credited with saving millions of teeth over the last century.
One of the most important of these treatment protocols is something known as "extension for prevention." In basic terms, it means a dentist removes not only decayed tooth structure but also healthy structure vulnerable to decay. But although effective in saving teeth, practicing this principle can result in loss of otherwise healthy tissue, which can weaken the tooth.
But with new advances in dentistry, decay treatment is getting an overhaul. While Dr. Black's time-tested protocols remain foundational, dentists are finding new ways to preserve more of the tooth structure in a concept known as minimally invasive dentistry (MID).
Better diagnostic tools. Because tooth decay can ultimately infect and damage the tooth's interior, roots and supporting bone, the best way to preserve more of the tooth structure is to treat it as early as possible. Now, new diagnostic tools like digital x-rays, microscopic magnification and optical scanning are helping dentists detect and treat decay earlier, thus reducing how much tissue is removed.
Better prevention methods. Oral hygiene and regular dental care are our basic weapons in the war with tooth decay. In addition, utilizing topical fluoride in combination with a milk-derived product called CPP-ACP dentists can get more of the cavity-fighting organic compound into the tooth enamel to strengthen it against acid attack.
Better treatment techniques. Using air abrasion (a fine particle spray that works like a miniature sandblaster) and lasers, dentists can now remove decayed structure with less harm to healthy tissue than with a traditional dental drill. And new, stronger dental fillings like those made with composite resins require less structural removal to accommodate them.
With these innovative approaches, dentists aren't just saving teeth, they're preserving more of their structure. And that can improve your overall dental health for the long-term.
If you would like more information on minimally invasive dentistry, 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 “Minimally Invasive Dentistry: When Less Care is More.”
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