Fans everywhere were recently saddened by the news of musical legend Eddie Van Halen's death. Co-founder and lead guitarist for the iconic rock group Van Halen, the 65-year-old superstar passed away from oral cancer.
Van Halen's rise to worldwide fame began in the 1970s with his unique guitar style and energetic performances, but behind the scenes, he struggled with his health. In 2000, he was successfully treated for tongue cancer. He remained cancer-free until 2018 when he was diagnosed with throat cancer to which he succumbed this past October.
Van Halen claimed the metal guitar picks he habitually held in his mouth caused his tongue cancer. It's more likely, though, that his heavy cigarette smoking and alcohol use had more to do with his cancers.
According to the American Cancer Society, most oral cancer patients are smokers and, as in Van Halen's case, are more likely to beat one form of oral cancer only to have another form arise in another part of the mouth. Add in heavy alcohol consumption, and the combined habits can increase the risk of oral cancer a hundredfold.
But there are ways to reduce that risk by making some important lifestyle changes. Here's how:
Quit tobacco. Giving up tobacco, whether smoked or smokeless, vastly lowers your oral cancer risk. It's not easy to kick the habit solo, but a medically supervised cessation program or support group can help.
Limit alcohol. If you drink heavily, consider giving up alcohol or limiting yourself to just one or two drinks a day. As with tobacco, it can be difficult doing it alone, so speak with a health professional for assistance.
Eat healthy. You can reduce your cancer risk by avoiding processed foods with nitrites or other known carcinogens. Instead, eat fresh fruits and vegetables with antioxidants that fight cancer. A healthy diet also boosts your overall dental and bodily health.
Practice hygiene. Keeping teeth and gums healthy also lowers oral cancer risk. Brush and floss daily to remove dental plaque, the bacterial film on teeth most responsible for dental disease. You should also visit us every six months for more thorough dental cleanings and checkups.
One last thing: Because oral cancer is often diagnosed in its advanced stages, be sure you see us if you notice any persistent sores or other abnormalities on your tongue or the inside of your mouth. An earlier diagnosis of oral cancer can vastly improve the long-term prognosis.
Although not as prevalent as other forms of cancer, oral cancer is among the deadliest with only a 60% five-year survival rate. Making these changes toward a healthier lifestyle can help you avoid this serious disease.
If you would like more information about preventing oral cancer, please contact us or schedule a consultation. To learn more, read the Dear Doctor magazine articles “How a Routine Dental Visit Saved My Life” and “Strategies to Stop Smoking.”
We're all interested in how our toothpaste tastes, how it freshens breath or how it brightens teeth. But those are secondary to its most important function, which is how well our toothpaste helps us remove dental plaque, that thin bacterial film on teeth most responsible for both tooth decay and gum disease.
Daily brushing and flossing clear away dental plaque, resulting in a much lower risk for dental disease. But while the mechanical action of brushing loosens plaque, toothpaste helps complete its removal. It can do this because of two basic ingredients found in nearly every brand of toothpaste.
The first is an abrasive (or polishing agent), a gritty substance that boosts the effectiveness of the brushing action (which, by the way, alleviates the need for harmful aggressive brushing). These substances, usually hydrated silica, hydrated alumina or calcium carbonate, are abrasive enough to loosen plaque, but not enough to damage tooth enamel.
The other ingredient, a detergent, works much the same way as the product you use to wash greasy dishes—it breaks down the parts of plaque that water can't dissolve. The most common, sodium lauryl sulfate, a safe detergent found in other hygiene products, loosens and dissolves plaque so that it can be easily rinsed away.
You'll also find other ingredients to some degree in toothpaste: flavorings, of course, that go a long way toward making the brushing experience more pleasant; humectants to help toothpaste retain moisture; and binders to hold bind all the ingredients together. And many toothpastes also contain fluoride, a naturally-occurring chemical that strengthens tooth enamel.
You may also find additional ingredients in toothpastes that specialize in certain functions like reducing tartar buildup (hardened plaque), easing tooth or gum sensitivity or controlling bacterial growth. Many toothpastes also include whiteners to promote a brighter smile. Your dentist can advise you on what to look for in a toothpaste to meet a specific need.
But your first priority should always be how well your toothpaste helps you keep your teeth and gums healthy. Knowing what's in it can help you choose your toothpaste more wisely.
If you would like more information on oral hygiene products and aids, 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 “Toothpaste: What's in It?”
The worst outcome of periodontal (gum) disease is tooth loss—but it isn't the only form of misery you might suffer. One of the more troublesome results associated with gum disease is gum recession.
Normal gum tissue covers teeth from just above the visible crown to the roots, providing protection against bacteria and oral acid similar to the enamel on the crown. But advanced gum disease can weaken these tissues, causing them to pull away or recede from the teeth.
Not only can this diminish your smile appearance, but the exposed areas are more susceptible to further disease and painful sensitivity. And it certainly can accelerate tooth loss.
But there are some things we can do to reduce the harm caused by gum recession. If we're able to diagnose and treat a gum infection early while the gums have only mildly receded, the tissues could stabilize and not get worse.
The chances for natural regrowth are unlikely, especially the more extensive the recession. In such cases, the gums may need some assistance via plastic periodontal surgery. Surgeons reconstruct gum tissues by grafting like tissues to the area of recession. These grafts serve as a scaffold for new tissues to gradually grow upon.
There are two general types of grafting procedures. One is called free gingival grafting. The surgeon completely removes a thin layer of skin from elsewhere in the mouth (such as the palate), then shapes and attaches it to the recession site. Both the donor and recession sites heal at approximately the same rate, usually within 14-21 days. This procedure replaces missing gum tissue, but doesn't cover exposed tooth roots to any great extent.
In cases of root exposure, dentists usually prefer another type of procedure, known as connective tissue grafting. The donor tissue is usually taken again from the palate, but the design of the surgery is different. A flap of tissue at the recipient site is opened so that after the connective tissue from the palate is placed at the recipient site to cover the exposed roots, the flap of tissue covers the graft to provide blood circulation to the graft as it heals.
Both kinds of procedures, particularly the latter, require detailed precision by a skilled and experienced surgeon. Although they can successfully reverse gum recession, it's much better to avoid a gum infection in the first place with daily oral hygiene and regular dental care.
If you would like more information on treating gum recession, 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 “Periodontal Plastic Surgery.”
Although the air we breathe has one destination—the lungs—it can arrive there via two possible routes: through the nose or the mouth. In terms of survival, it matters little through which path air travels—just so it travels one of them!
In terms of health, though, breathing through the nose is more beneficial than through the mouth, and is our default breathing pattern. The nasal passages filter minute noxious particles and allergens. Air passing through these passages also produces nitric oxide, a gaseous substance that relaxes blood vessels and improves blood flow.
On the other hand, chronic mouth breathing during childhood can impact oral health. While breathing through the nose, the tongue rests against the roof of the mouth and thus becomes a mold around which the upper jaw and teeth develop. But mouth breathing places the tongue on the lower teeth, which deprives the upper jaw of support and can lead to an abnormal bite.
So why would people breathe through their mouth more than their nose? Simply put, it's more comfortable to do so. Because breathing is so critical for life, the body takes the path of least resistance to get air to the lungs. If obstructions caused by allergic reactions or swollen tonsils or adenoids are blocking the nasal pathway, the action moves to the mouth.
But chronic mouth breathing can often be treated, especially if addressed in early childhood. This may require the services of an ear, nose and throat specialist (ENT) and possible surgical intervention to correct anatomical obstructions. It's also prudent to have an orthodontist evaluate the bite and institute corrective interventions if it appears a child's jaw development is off-track.
Even after correcting obstructions, though, it may still be difficult for a child to overcome mouth breathing because the body has become habituated to breathing that way. They may need orofacial myofunctional therapy (OMT), which retrains the muscles in the face and mouth to breathe through the nose.
Chronic mouth breathing isn't something to be ignored. Early intervention could prevent future oral and dental problems and help the person regain the overall health benefits for nose breathing.
If you would like more information on overcoming chronic mouth breathing, 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 “The Trouble With Mouth Breathing.”
Buffalo Bills wide receiver Stefon Diggs wrapped up the NFL regular season in January, setting single-season records in both catches and receiving yards. The Bills handily beat the Miami Dolphins, earning themselves the second seed in the AFC playoffs, and Diggs certainly did his part, making 7 catches for 76 yards. But what set the internet ablaze was not Diggs' accomplishments on the field but rather what the camera caught him doing on the sidelines—flossing his teeth!
The Twitterverse erupted with Bills fans poking fun at Diggs. But Diggs is not ashamed of his good oral hygiene habits, and CBS play-by-play announcer Kevin Harlan expressed his support with “Dental hygiene is something to take note of, kids! There's never a bad place to floss” and “When you lead the NFL in catches and yards, you can floss anytime you want.”
We like to think so. There's an old joke among dentists:
Q. Which teeth do you need to floss?
A. Only the ones you want to keep.
Although this sounds humorous, it is borne out in research. Of note, a 2017 study showed that people who floss have a lower risk of tooth loss over periods of 5 years and 10 years, and a 2020 study found that older adults who flossed lost an average of 1 tooth in 5 years, while those who don't lost around 4 teeth in the same time period.
We in the dental profession stress the importance of flossing as a daily habit—and Stefon Diggs would likely agree—yet fewer than 1 in 3 Americans floss every day. The 2016 National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES), conducted by the CDC's National Center for Health Statistics, revealed that only 30% of Americans floss every day, while 37% floss less than every day and 32% never floss.
The biggest enemy on the football field may be the opposing team, but the biggest enemy to your oral health is plaque, a sticky film of bacteria and food debris that builds up on tooth surfaces. Plaque can cause tooth decay and gum disease, the number one cause of tooth loss among adults. Flossing is necessary to remove plaque from between teeth and around the gums where a toothbrush can't reach. If not removed, plaque hardens into tartar, which can only be removed by the specialized tools used in the dental office. Regular professional dental cleanings are also needed to get at those hard-to-reach spots you may have missed.
If Diggs can find time to floss during a major NFL game, the rest of us can certainly find a couple minutes a day to do it. While we might not recommend Diggs' technique of flossing from one side of the mouth to the other, we commend his enthusiasm and commitment to keeping his teeth and gums healthy. Along with good dental hygiene at home—or on the sidelines if you are Stefon Diggs—regular professional dental cleanings and checkups play a key role in maintaining a healthy smile for life.
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