Taking care of that smile for life


MANY of us know that a good diet, regular exercise and not smoking are important to keep us healthy. But have you ever thought that healthy teeth and mouth are also important parts of a healthy body?

Having a toothache, mouth infections or missing teeth can affect the way we smile and speak, how well we chew our food and basically how we feel about socialising. From scientific research, we now know that there is an established association between oral diseases and other health problems such as diabetes, heart disease and stroke.

Although the exact mechanisms of how these diseases are related are still being studied, evidence shows that oral diseases can cause other health problems to become worse. Because of this, keeping our mouths healthy is necessary as part of leading a healthy life.

In Malaysia, nine out of 10 adults have tooth decay or cavities. Similarly, statistics also show that nine out of 10 Malaysian adults have gum disease. Both of these conditions may cause teeth to be extracted if not treated early enough.

However, this huge problem of dental diseases is not just found in Malaysia; it is a worldwide problem. A global study of disease burden involving 291 diseases and injuries found that the most common disease was untreated tooth decay!

In addition, severe gum disease was found to be the number eight most common disease, and severe tooth loss was number 36! With such high occurrences in dental diseases, one wonders if they are actually preventable. Also, with such high occurrences, one wonders if everybody bears the same risk or likelihood to get dental disease.

A person’s oral condition is continuously exposed to environmental and behavioural factors that may increase the risk of getting dental disease at any time. As one goes through life and various life events – like starting work, moving house, getting married, being diagnosed with certain diseases, etc – risks as a result of environmental and behavioural changes can accumulate throughout his/ her life course.

This is because risk to getting dental disease such as tooth decay and gum disease can change according to the environment one lives in and changes that take place within one’s lifestyle and behaviour. For example, the global pattern of oral health is seen to be shaped by variation in living conditions.

People with higher standards of living, who use fluoridated toothpastes and have access to dental services, are seen to have better oral health. If any of these circumstances were to change, like if a person loses his job, it can affect his ability to care for his oral health in the same manner.

Good oral health environment during childhood – like having rules for eating sweets, brushing teeth twice daily, having parents who controlled toothbrushing and having annual dental visits – leads to better oral health in adulthood.

Adults with good oral health behaviour will also enjoy good oral health during old age. These observations suggest that socially-advantaged people in terms of education and income levels have better opportunities for good oral health.

Most dental diseases are preventable and so, to avoid losing teeth and to maintain good oral health, it is important to give life-long attention to good oral care.

The following are some tips to having good oral health for life:

1) Keep your mouth clean by brushing your teeth and tongue at least once in the morning and once at night. This can be done by using a soft-bristle toothbrush and fluoride toothpaste. It is good if you can floss every day. Eat a well-balanced diet and limit foods and beverages containing sugar. Good nutrition will also bring about good general health.

2) Check your mouth regularly. Look for signs of gum disease: red, shiny, puffy, sore or sensitive gums, bleeding of gums when you brush of floss, and bad breath that will not go away. Look for signs of oral cancer: bleeding or open sores that do not heal, white or red patches, numbness or tingling, small lumps and thickening on sides or bottom of your tongue, the floor or roof of your mouth, the inside of your cheeks, or on your gums.

3) Do not smoke or chew tobacco. If you do, you may get help to quit from your dentist or doctor. Smoking and chewing smokeless tobacco can cause you to have oral cancer, heart disease and other cancers. It can also ruin your smile and make your mouth smell bad.

4) Visit your dentist regularly. Only about a quarter of Malaysians visit the dentist in one year and for most, it is because of some pain or discomfort. Regular visits will help your dentist identify if there is any early signs of disease. It is the best way to prevent and detect problems before they get worse.

Oral health is just as important as the health of the rest of your body. Always remember that dental disease is preventable and it is possible for everyone to enjoy good oral health by taking proper care of teeth and gums. Many tooth cleaning products are affordable and you can find a dental clinic, private or government-based, that can cater to your needs, as there are many to choose from.

Associate Prof Dr Tuti Ningseh Mohd Dom is an academic member of the Faculty of Dentistry, Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia, who is responsible for training future dentists and dental specialists in the area of public health dentistry.

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