Every alcoholic will probably be aware that their addiction is damaging many aspects of their lives. Personal and professional relationships may have been strained to breaking point. The emotional stress related to alcohol dependence will invariably take a significant toll on mental health. And of course consuming large amounts of alcohol may irreparably damage general health and wellbeing. There is, however, another health aspect that is usually overlooked because of more urgent medical, psychiatric and social problems but is none the less still an important part of living a long and healthy life and that is dental health.
The adverse effects of drinking heavily are well documented, alcohol gets absorbed by the stomach, enters the bloodstream and reaches the brain and central nervous system, and the remains are processed by the liver. This means that there is a risk of stomach ulcers, artery clogging, and liver cirrhosis. The effects on the brain include memory loss, impaired motor functions, and alcohol dependency.
Alcohol is the second leading cause of cancer in human beings, second only to smoking. Also, the risk of heart disease, impotence, wrinkles and early aging increases significantly with heavy alcohol consumption.
The effect on teeth is no less dangerous, as alcohol is consumed through the mouth, meaning it is the most affected organ of all, and since most alcoholic drinks contain added sodas and\or citrus drinks, the effects are multiplied.
Oral diseases related to alcohol abuse are numerous and diverse, including:
- Teeth staining (as they contain artificial colors and chromogenic bacteria).
- Bad breath, as alcohol disrupts the balance of bacteria in the mouth.
- Dryness of the mouth and as saliva is a buffer and can wash away the food remnant and plaque and clean the teeth, the risk of dental decay and gum disease increases. Not only that, but many alcohol abusers tend to skip dental care altogether, causing the damage to increase significantly.
- Alcohol is acidic in origin, which causes demineralization and softening of the enamel (outer surface of the teeth), also leading to increased decay rate in addition to teeth sensitivity.
- Due to this acidic nature, it causes changes in the taste sensation of the tongue, as well as burning of the tongue, gums and the insides of the cheeks.
- Excessive use of alcohol can also lead to vomiting, and since the stomach contents are highly acidic, this causes chemical erosion of the teeth. Significant erosion leads to teeth sensitivity, decay, and bad appearance.
- Swelling of Salivary glands, especially the Parotid gland (which is present in front of the ear. This carries a lot of risks including decreasing the flow of saliva, nerve compression (as more than 5 nerves that supply the face pass through this gland) and in severe cases, even hearing problems.
- Alcohol dependence has also been linked to gum disease which can, in turn, lead to an increased risk of heart disease, stroke diabetes, respiratory disease, and cancer.
- Research has shown that statistically, drinkers are more likely smoke as well. The combination of drinking alcohol and smoking is especially harmful and early research suggests that the combination of using both substances together multiplies the chance of certain cancers.
- Oral cancer risk is multiplied 6 times with alcohol abusers compared to average risk, especially if combined with smoking.
“What should I do to avoid these effects?”
Unfortunately improving dental health while still suffering from alcohol addiction is very difficult since the user will likely be facing considerable challenges emotionally, socially, physically and financially, but there are some small steps that can be taken to keep the damaging effects to a minimum.
- Every effort should be made to attend a dentist or clinic regularly to clean the teeth professionally, check for teeth and gum infections and importantly monitor for any sign of mouth cancer.
- Surveys and research indicate that while practically no addicts floss at all, most still make an effort to clean their teeth regularly and actively maintain an interest in oral health. Unfortunately, in many cases, the daily oral hygiene routine is not still not sufficiently adequate to prevent the buildup of plaque and the resulting decay and gum disease. Interestingly alcoholics often choose a hard bristled brush. Perhaps in an effort to thoroughly scrub away the smell of alcohol from their breath. Hard bristle brushes are not ideal for cleaning teeth as they can potentially damage teeth enamel and contribute to gum recession. A better option is to use a soft bristle brush that is better able to flex into the spaces between the teeth and that won’t damage the teeth. An even better option is to use an electric toothbrush that can reduce the effort required to clean every tooth surface properly. Dentists often recommend Oral-B toothbrushes because of the efficiency of the cup-shaped cleaning heads. Some electric toothbrushes like the Oral-B Pro-2000 have a built-in pressure sensor that will alert the user if excessive pressure is applied during brushing, this is especially useful for people who drink regularly during the day because alcohol has a softening effect on tooth enamel making them susceptible to toothbrush erosion.
- Brushing directly after drinking is not recommended, but heavy rinsing of your mouth is highly advised. Using a higher fluoride-containing toothpaste and mouthwash is also advisable, although some mouthwashes do contain alcohol, and thus should be avoided since they can further dry out the mouth. Also, there are some suggestions that mouthwashes containing alcohol may be a contributing factor to mouth cancer.
- Many alcoholics make every effort to cover up their dependence to those around them. One of the giveaway signs of drinking is the smell of alcohol on the breath so it is common practice to use strong breath mints to freshen the breath. Sucking on breath mints or chewing gum is a great way to stimulate saliva production. Saliva is nature’s way of keeping the teeth and gums clean. For people who are are going to use breath mints or chewing gum, it is a great idea to use products containing xylitol. Bacteria thrive on sugar, and it is the toxic byproduct of the metabolized sugar that causes tooth decay and infection. Xylitol is a natural sugar that disrupts bacteria’s ingestion process and effectively kills and reduces the number of harmful bacteria in the mouth. Regularly using xylitol mints, gum, sweets or toothpaste is a very easy way to improve oral health.
Of course, the most important course of action for any alcoholic is to seek help for their addiction as soon as possible, only then can the recovery and healing process really begin. Rebuilding a life after addiction can be a very long process with many fences to mend along the way. Dental health usually takes a back seat compared to other aspects of life but poor oral health can have a very real impact on many chronic and systemic diseases not to mention confidence and self-esteem.
Dental Health Recovery
Alcohol and substance abuse can have a devastating effect on dental health but with a little time and effort, it is possible to regain a healthy smile. Achieving a good level of oral health, in theory, is relatively simple.
By following these simple steps it is possible for anybody to improve their dental health.
- Schedule regular dentist visits to check and monitor for decay, gum disease and mouth cancer. The dental team will also scale and polish teeth if required.
- Always brush teeth for 2 minutes twice a day.
- Floss teeth at least once a day. Flossing can be done with string floss, interdental brushes or electric power flossers like a Waterpik.
- Drink plenty of water.
- Avoid brushing teeth immediately after eating or drinking acidic foods and drinks. This is when tooth enamel is at its softest and most vulnerable. Wait for at least half an hour to let the mouth chemistry to stabilize.Avoid brushing teeth immediately after eating or drinking acidic foods and drinks. This is when tooth enamel is at its softest and most vulnerable. Wait for at least half an hour to let the mouth chemistry to stabilize.
- Use a fluoride toothpaste and mouthwash to protect teeth.
- Chew or suck on Xylitol chewing gum or sweets regularly to reduce oral bacteria.Eat a healthy and balanced diet.
- Eating natural foods that are rich in vital vitamins and minerals will help teeth and gums stay healthy.
Having a healthy smile will do wonders for a person’s confidence. For people with missing, discolored teeth or crooked teeth it is worthwhile asking your dentist for available options to improve the appearance of the teeth. Today’s advanced dentistry techniques can easily resolve dental problems and recover a person’s smile.
It is important to replace missing teeth for many health reasons and there are a number of options available:
- Full dentures
- Partial dentures
- Flexible dentures
- Fixed dentures
- Mini implants
Discolored teeth can leave people embarrassed to smile, but there are many options available to remove staining and discoloration:
- Whitening toothpastes
- Teeth polishing
- In office professional teeth bleaching
- At home professional teeth bleaching
Crowns Crowded or crooked teeth can also cause embarrassment but there are many procedures that can be performed to straighten any smile:
- Cosmetic contouring
- Porcelain veneers
- Invisible braces
A genuine smile releases endorphins oxygenate the brain and make us feel relaxed and happy. Don’t underestimate the power of a beautiful smile.
About The Author
Dr. Mohamed Abdel Hamid BDS, MFDS RCSEd, Member of AACD