Give Yourself A Healthy Smile

Did you know good oral hygiene can affect your susceptibility to diabetes and heart disease? We take a look at mouth health and discover the best way to keep your teeth in tip-top shape.

They say that the eyes are the window to the soul. But if the mouth is the mirror that reflects our overall health, then most of us are in some serious trouble.

Good oral hygiene not only helps to make or break your teeth and gums - it can also determine your susceptibility to diabetes, heart disease or strokes.

So taking a look inside that deep cavern could, actually, help save your life, says Pamela Coates of the British Dental Health Foundation (BDHF).

"Bacteria in the mouth can enter into the bloodstream and be passed around the body, or they can be inhaled into the lungs and cause respiratory problems," she explains.

"So the more bacteria you have in your mouth, the higher your risk of other health problems. But it's relatively easy to remove the plaque on your teeth - and then you won't have any bacteria to pass around."

Here we look at some of the most common mouth problems and how to solve them.

Mouth Ulcers

:: What causes it?
Mouth ulcers are the small sores inside your mouth caused by accidentally biting or grazing the inside of your cheeks or lips, while eating or using a toothbrush incorrectly.

"Up to two-thirds of people get bouts of mouth ulcers at some point in their lives, but they're more common in young adults and children," says Boots pharmacist Angela Chalmers.

"You may also be more susceptible if you have too little iron, folic acid or vitamin B12 in your bloodstream, if you are sensitive to gluten, or someone else in your family is a sufferer."

:: What can you do?
Usually, gargling with a teaspoon of salt in a tumbler of warm water will help the ulcer to heal, says Coates. Otherwise, mouthwashes and gels which contain an antiseptic called chlorhexidine may help reduce the pain and can help ulcers heal faster.

But beware if your ulcer doesn't heal quickly.

"If you have an ulcer for more than three weeks, you should visit your dentist, as there might be something serious going on," warns Coates. "Remember to eat lots of fresh fruit and veg, and practise good oral hygiene to prevent any in the future."

Gum Disease

:: What causes it?
Gum disease is linked to potential risk of heart disease, diabetes, stroke, premature birth, low birthweight babies and infertility.

People with gum disease are almost twice as likely to have coronary artery disease than those without, as bacteria from the mouth enter the bloodstream, stick to fatty deposits in the blood vessels of the heart and make clots more likely to form.

Pregnant women should also be aware that gum disease can make them seven times more likely to have a premature and low birthweight baby, as gum disease raises the levels of the biological fluids that bring on labour, according to the BDHF.

"Gum disease can vary from a mild inflammation of the gums - called gingivitis - to advanced gum disease, also known as periodontitis," Chalmers explains.

"Plaque builds up on the teeth and the bacteria in it produces toxins, irritating the tissues and gums.

"Very often the only sign of gingivitis will be bleeding gums when brushing your teeth. But in more serious cases of periodontitis, the ligaments which attach the gum to your teeth will begin to recede and your teeth may eventually come loose and fall out."

:: What can you do?
Keep your gums healthy by cleaning your teeth properly, paying particular attention to where the gum meets the tooth. Visit your dentist if your gums seem red or swollen or bleed easily, or if you have an unpleasant taste in your mouth, bad breath, loose teeth or regular mouth infections.

Dry Mouth

:: What causes it?
Dry mouth, also known as xerostomia, is a normal symptom of ageing but can also be brought on by hormonal changes or medications such as antihistamines, decongestants, painkillers and antidepressants.

Symptoms include a dry and burning sensation in the mouth, cracked lips, bad breath, mouth sores and a dry and rough tongue.

Less saliva in the mouth can also result in oral tissues drying out, allowing bacteria to penetrate and enter the bloodstream.

:: What can you do?
Saliva contains enzymes which help to break down your food and help you swallow. But it also acts as a cleanser, constantly washing around your mouth and teeth, helping to keep your teeth clean and fight decay - so the less you have of it, the more you risk tooth decay and other problems, says Chalmers.

But because less saliva in the mouth is a gradual change, most patients just get used to the feeling, says Coates.

"Dry mouth is one thing that dentists tend not to notice, so it's worth discussing with your doctor if you have any of the symptoms," she explains.

You can reduce the effects of dry mouth by increasing your fluid intake and taking frequent sips of water, says Chalmers.

There are also a number of products designed to provide moisture and comfort to help with dry mouth, like gels, sprays or mouthwash, which stimulate salivary flow and can help prevent tooth and gum problems.

Mouth Cancer

:: What is it?
Mouth cancer affects more than 800 Australians each year, with most cases linked to tobacco and alcohol. Over-exposure to sunlight can also increase the risk of cancer of the lips.

Mouth cancer can appear anywhere in the mouth, and may seem as painless as an ulcer that doesn't heal normally. A white or red patch in the
mouth can also become cancerous, so it's essential that you see your dentist if you have any of these symptoms.

:: What can I do?
This type of cancer is usually spotted in its early stages by your dentist, which means there is a good chance of curing it. Cutting down on smoking and drinking, and eating a diet rich in vitamins A, C and E, will all help protect against the development of mouth cancer. Be sure also to look for any changes in your mouth, visit your dentist if necessary and use sunscreen on your lips when exposed to the sun.

"The earlier it's caught, the better treated it is," says Coates. "So if you see anything different in your mouth that hasn't healed within three weeks, see your dentist!"

Top tips for healthy teeth
:: Brush twice a day with fluoride toothpaste. Fluoride helps strengthen the enamel of our teeth - go for a toothpaste with around 1,350 to 1,500ppm (parts per million) to it.

:: Clean between your teeth. Floss or an interdental brush should help you rid your mouth of any food decaying between your teeth, where it can cause problems.

:: Avoid sugary snacks and drinks. They only increase your chances of tooth decay!

:: Try to keep off the orange juice. New science has found that orange juice is worse for your teeth than whitening treatments, as the citric acid damages the tooth enamel.

:: Exercise. People who stay fit are 40% less likely to develop gum infections, according to the BDHF.

:: Stop smoking. People who smoke are more likely to produce bacterial plaque that leads to gum disease. Smoking can also lead to tooth staining, bad breath and mouth cancer.

:: For more top tips on keeping your teeth healthy, see the Australian Dental Association's website at

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