By now, it’s common knowledge that smoking — as well as any type of tobacco use — has a devastating effect on health. According to a 2020 Surgeon General’s report, smoking is the leading cause of preventable death in the United States. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) states that smoking causes cancer, heart disease, stroke, lung diseases, diabetes, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), which includes emphysema and chronic bronchitis. Smoking also increases risk for tuberculosis, certain eye diseases and problems of the immune system — including rheumatoid arthritis.
What may not be as widely known is the fact that smoking has detrimental effects on oral health. As we always say at NK Family Dental, oral health is part of overall health. Keep reading to learn how smoking negatively impacts numerous aspects of oral health, how smoking leads to periodontal (gum) disease and how smokers can practice good oral hygiene to help prevent problems or ensure early diagnosis for timely treatment.
The Overall Effects of Smoking on Oral Health
We’ll start with the worst tobacco-induced oral disease — oral cancer. The American Cancer Society estimates oral cancer will claim over 11,000 lives this year, and produce about 54,000 new cases diagnosed. Our blog post — “April is Oral Cancer Awareness Month” — covers in detail the areas in which it can occur, symptoms, diagnosis and treatment. The sooner oral cancer is diagnosed and treated, the better your chance of survival. If discovered early, the cure rate is nearly 90%.
Smoking causes and exacerbates numerous other oral issues and conditions, including the following, provided courtesy of WebMD:
- Bad breath.
- Tooth discoloration.
- Inflammation of the salivary gland openings on the roof of the mouth.
- Increased buildup of plaque and tartar on the teeth.
- Increased loss of bone within the jaw.
- Increased risk of leukoplakia (white patches inside the mouth).
- Increased risk of developing gum disease, a leading cause of tooth loss.
- Delayed healing process following tooth extraction, periodontal treatment, or oral surgery.
- Lower success rate of dental implant procedures.
How Smoking Leads to Periodontal Disease
According to the CDC, smokers are twice as likely as nonsmokers to develop periodontal disease. Periodontal disease is an infection of the gums and can affect the bone structure that supports your teeth. Left untreated, it can cause your teeth to loosen and eventually fall out. Anyone who doesn’t practice good oral hygiene can develop periodontal disease, but according to the National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research, smoking is the most significant risk factor.
As the CDC explains: “Gum disease starts with bacteria (germs) on your teeth that get under your gums. If the germs stay on your teeth for too long, layers of plaque (film) and tartar (hardened plaque) develop. This buildup leads to early gum disease, called gingivitis. When gum disease gets worse, your gums can pull away from your teeth and form spaces that get infected. This is severe gum disease, also called periodontitis. The bone and tissue that hold your teeth in place can break down, and your teeth may loosen and need to be pulled out.”
Our blog post — “Types of Gum Disease” — provides detailed information about each type and stage of periodontal disease. To reiterate, gingivitis and periodontitis are basically one and the same, with periodontitis being the advanced stage of gingivitis.
How does smoking start this insidious process? According to WebMD, it appears that smoking interferes with the normal function of gum tissue cells. This interference makes smokers more susceptible to infections, such as periodontal disease, and also seems to impair blood flow to the gums ― which may affect wound healing.
The Pennsylvania Center for Periodontology elaborates as follows:
Dry mouth — Smoking creates a dry environment in the mouth, which makes harmful bacteria more easily attach to your teeth and under your gums.
Weakened immune response — Smoking weakens your immune systems, which makes it harder for your body to fight the harmful bacteria that cause gum infections.
Poor circulation — As mentioned earlier, smoking causes vasoconstriction, which is a constriction of the blood vessels. Gum tissue needs good circulation to stay healthy and resist infection.
Symptoms of gingivitis include the following:
- Swollen or puffy gums.
- Dusky red or dark red gums.
- Gums that bleed easily when you brush or floss.
- Receding gums.
- Tender gums.
- Bad breath.
How Smokers Can Practice Good Oral Hygiene
Our NK Family Dental team is here to help, not preach. We know that quitting isn’t easy. In fact, nicotine has been proven to be as addictive as cocaine and heroin, and may even be more addictive. Many people who smoke develop nicotine dependence, which makes quitting all the harder, especially when they try to stop smoking on their own. You already may have tried quitting once or numerous times. Therefore, it isn’t realistic to expect that you need to wait until you’re smoke-free before you can take the necessary steps to follow the best possible oral hygiene practices. Staying proactive with your oral care program and regular dental checkups is especially important to prevent or delay oral health problems, and to be diagnosed and treated in a timely manner.
Brush at least twice a day — Floss or clean between your teeth with interdental brushes or water flossers at least once a day, and use antimicrobial mouth rinses and tongue scrapers.
Use the right type of toothbrush — Smokers need to use a toothbrush that is flexible and can reach even the hidden areas of the mouth to help prevent plaque and tartar buildup. There are toothbrushes made specifically for smokers — an online search can direct you to such brands. An electric toothbrush can also be effective.
Use a good mouthwash — While people who smoke tend to have bad breath, using a mouthwash can provide benefits beyond freshening. Therapeutic mouthwashes have active ingredients that kill bacteria and can help reduce plaque, gingivitis, cavities and bad breath. Those that contain fluoride help prevent or reduce tooth decay. Our blog post — “Is Mouthwash Necessary?” — covers different types of mouthwash, their active ingredients and how to choose the best one for your needs – in greater detail.
Schedule regular checkups with your dentist — This is important for everyone, but smokers need to be screened for signs of oral cancer, periodontal disease and the other previously described conditions to which smokers are more susceptible. Early diagnosis and treatment are essential to prevent disease progression. Although the statistic for oral cancer survival given earlier in this blog post is optimistic, please note that this only applies for cases caught in time. If cancer has already spread before diagnosis, the survival rate is only 60% after five years of treatment.
Monitor your own oral health — Perform regular self-checkups for symptoms of disease. Check for red spots, sores and swelling around the lips. Bleeding gums and lumps may also signal a serious condition. Should you notice anything out of the ordinary, do not wait for your next dental examination! Schedule an appointment immediately.
The Take-Home Message
If you smoke, maintaining your oral health requires meeting greater challenges and being more proactive in your care. As an adult, you’re well aware of the detrimental effects that tobacco use has on your overall health and life expectancy. Although we know that quitting is hard, we encourage you to resolve to take this important step and find a program or method that works for you. A good place to start is the American Cancer Society, which provides online links to resources to help you throughout the process.
Also, talk to your dentist about your tobacco use. You may have indicated that you smoke when you filled in your new patient questionnaire, but your dentist may be able to recommend specific oral care products and techniques according to your specific needs — as well as be on alert for changes that indicate oral cancer, periodontal disease or another condition.
It is our mission to provide the highest quality and most compassionate oral care to our Chicago patients, including both dental and periodontal services. Our practice is trusted for advanced oral surgery procedures and comfortable root canal treatment.
Our team of experienced, dedicated dental professionals will help address your oral health concerns, and determine the best solution for you based on your individual situation. We strive to identify treatment options that fit your needs. Our dental specialists include our general dentist, Dr. Nilofer Khan, our endodontist, Dr. Sabek, and our periodontist, Dr. Amir Danesh. Dr. Danesh is a board-certified periodontist and Diplomat of the American Board of Periodontology. He has contributed to the publication of two books, as well as published over 20 papers in prestigious dental research journals.
We understand that the main concern you may have is cost, which is why we accept all major PPO plans for dental insurance and also offer our in-house dental plan. Please see our financing page for more information.