As we step into the Alcohol Awareness Month of April, let’s take a moment to discuss Alcohol and its effects on oral health. There’s no better time than now because, let’s face it, what are the chances that you’re thinking about oral health when holding that beer in your hand?
Let’s touch upon the different components of the mouth that alcohol affects:
- Gum, tongue and oral tissues feel irritated and dry: This happens because of the dehydrating effect of alcohol.
- Healing: Tissue healing becomes impaired. Combine this with smoking and/or diabetes and you have something akin to adding fuel to fire.
- Oral health habits tend to be poor: After a few drinks, an intoxicated person is less likely to stick to oral care habits like brushing or even rinsing before going to bed. Heavy drinkers may experience dry mouth at night and neglect professional oral health care as well.
- Tooth decay increases: Alcohol drinkers tend to consume higher amounts of refined carbohydrates to satisfy their “munchies”. Sugary fruit juices and soft drinks used in cocktails can cause tooth erosion. These sugars from cocktails and the already existing bacteria in the mouth combine to create acids (dextrans, levans, glucans). These acids then attack the tooth enamel resulting in cavities. Heavy drinking can also lead to gastric regurgitation in the form of vomiting, which is extremely acidic and can typically erode the inner surfaces of teeth.
- Periodontal (gum) disease: Continuous alcohol abuse increases periodontitis or severe gum disease. This happens due to loss of gum attachment to the tooth and the underlying jaw bones eventually weakening the tooth support. More tooth structure becomes exposed and, hence, sensitivity to hot and cold develops.
- Clenching and habitual grinding: Under the influence of alcohol, a person tends to overlook inhibitions and enters a more aggressive state. This can lead to expression anger and emotions by tightly clenching the teeth and grinding them vigorously. Minor tooth fractures and cracks (abfractions) and wear facets (attrition) can hence be noted on the surfaces of teeth. Also a semi/unconscious person can bite their cheek or tongue which can lead to moderate to severe ulceration.
- Effects on saliva: Saliva plays a key role in the oral cavity lubrication, maintenance of mucosal and tooth integrity (by keeping them moist), esophageal physiology, digestion and gastric cytoprotection through various immune components. As alcohol abuse affects the salivary glands and saliva, the maintenance of oral and general health under normal conditions is seriously impaired. Ethanol diffuses rapidly into saliva during drinking and reaches a higher concentration there. This breaks down into acetaldehyde, which in turn creates a burning sensation in the oral cavity.
Sometimes enlargement of the parotid salivary glands located in front and below the ears (glands which secrete saliva into the mouth) may be a sign of a chronic alcohol use problem.
- Oral cancers: Alcohol abuse is a large risk factor. This is because alcohol dehydrates the cell walls of the oral tissues, making it easy for the carcinogens to permeate the tissues more readily, resulting in development of cancer.
- Drinking and smoking: People with these habits are at risk of having tooth decay, periodontal disease, oral cancer and potentially precancerous oral lesions. Heavy drinkers are at greater risk of developing cancer in the mouth, throat and esophagus. Not only this, World Health Organization (WHO) reports that drinking can also cause cancer risk to liver, colon and breast and may also be linked with cancer of the pancreas and lungs. Oral Cancer Foundation states that combining alcohol and tobacco resulted in a 15 times greater risk for the development of oral cancer.
Moderation is the mantra because of alcohol’s protective benefits against cardiovascular disease. It should never be abused and home care measures should be taken to keep the body and mouth healthy. After all, an alert mind and a healthy smile are key to a healthy life.
Like what you see? Sign up to join Human Health Project, a community-based, not-for-profit website focused on using peer to peer health support for a healthier you.