As the month of May draws to a close, we approach World No Tobacco Day, held on the 31st of May every year. The World Health Organization arranges the annual event to build awareness of the very real health risks associated with tobacco use. This year’s campaign is “Tobacco Breaks Hearts: Choose Health, not Tobacco.” Dental professionals have long been aware of the association between tobacco use and decreased oral health.
If you use tobacco, used to use tobacco, or have considered using tobacco, you have likely heard that tobacco is not safe or benign. It’s a major health risk that can endanger multiple organ systems. Even if you are aware of the risk to your oral health posed by tobacco use, you probably think of the risk of oral cancer from tobacco. But, did you know that you could be smoking or dipping your way to more cavities (dental caries)? Tobacco use is a danger to your oral health, in addition to all the other ways tobacco has been shown to risk your health.
Tobacco and Cavities Go Hand in Hand
A major study in Sweden looked at teens who never used tobacco and those who had used tobacco. The study found clear evidence that teens who had ever used tobacco had a higher rate of cavities, even when other factors, such as socioeconomic status, were controlled for. Similar results were found in a study that looked at adult females in federal correctional facilities. When your dentist is asking you to consider quitting to save your teeth, you should know that their advice is well grounded in science.
Smokeless Does Not Equal Danger Free
Smokeless tobacco, such as snuff or chewing tobacco, is not a safe alternative to cigarettes for your oral health. Users of smokeless tobacco have a higher incidence of cavities, specifically cavities at the gumline. In fact, according to at least one study, regular non-smoked tobacco users have 4 times the risk of cavities at the tooth root. Chewing tobacco appears to increase the risk of cavities more than any other type of tobacco use, and the longer chewing tobacco is used, the more that risk increases. Chewing tobacco has a high sugar content, and it is held at the tooth root for long periods of time, providing an additional layer of risk to the tobacco use.
Biofilm Thrives on Nicotine
Interestingly enough, the nicotine in tobacco has a measurable impact on biofilm formation of S. mutans, the bacteria most commonly associated with unhealthy, cavity causing biofilms. Electron microscope examinations of S. mutans biofilms that were exposed to nicotine showed that the biofilms were thicker and more metabolically active. This study has given some preliminary insight into one of the ways that tobacco could increase cavities in tobacco users.
What’s to be Done?
Obviously, the best way to avoid tobacco related risks to your teeth is never to smoke. If you have been a tobacco user or are a tobacco user, make sure to keep up with oral hygiene and regular dental visits to catch any developing problems early. Consider using products specifically designed to help control oral biofilm to try to control for known complications of tobacco use. And, spread the word that using tobacco is a danger to your overall health and your oral health.