Smoking and Dental Health

Published March 9th, 2016   

Dental health and smoking

Everyone knows smoking causes lung cancer. It’s closely linked to cardio-pulmonary problems and can cause coughing fits and worsen asthma symptoms. And it’s common knowledge smoking can lead to emphysema and other chronic lung problems. Most people who use tobacco are aware of these risks.

There’s another side effect of smoking that doesn’t get as much attention, and that’s the toll it takes on your dental health. It can significantly weaken both, constricting the blood flow to your mouth and turning it into a breeding ground for bacteria. Not only that, but smoking also may:

  • Give you foul breath
  • Lengthen the time it takes to heal from oral surgery
  • Cause discoloration of the teeth
  • Raise your risk of getting oral cancer

At AZ Family Dental, we understand how difficult it can be to stop smoking. We see it every day with the patients at our Glendale, AZ-area family dental practice. Yet many of these patients don’t know how much their habit can hurt their dental health.

That prompted us to put together this guide on why tobacco is so bad for your teeth and gums, along with a few tips for addressing the effects of tobacco on your teeth and gums. Your dentist may be able to restore damage done by smoking.

We’ll start by exploring why smoking is so bad for your teeth and gums.

How Does Tobacco Damage Teeth?

Tobacco hurts your teeth in many ways. Cigarettes limit your mouth’s ability to fight off infection, which leaves you defenseless against the bacteria produced by smoking. When your mouth can’t fight back, plaque and bacteria fester. This leads to problems ranging from yellowing of teeth to losing them and needing root canals.
When you smoke, you short-circuit your body’s auto-immune defenses. Your body will have a hard time protecting itself. Suddenly, tartar buildup becomes a major issue because your body can’t battle a potential infection. The blood circulation in your mouth decreases sharply when you smoke. Grit in tobacco can also rub teeth and wear away their protective coating of enamel.
It’s not only cigarettes, either. Smokeless tobacco can also cause harm to your mouth, and not just because of the nicotine. Some brands of chewing tobacco use sugar as an ingredient. When you hold the tobacco in your mouth for long periods, you’re exposing your teeth to damaging sugar that can cause tooth decay, beyond all the other problems nicotine can spark.

Why Is Smoking So Bad for Your Teeth?

Smoking cigarettes doesn’t just damage teeth — it can even destroy them. Consider these alarming statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention:

  • 16 percent of smokers have poor dental health, four times the rate of people who have never smoked.
  • Smokers are less likely to have gone to the dentist in the past five years than non-smokers.
  • More than a third of smokers have at least three dental health issues.

dental issues due to smoking stats

Interestingly, there appears to be a link between financial concerns and smoking that can compound the impact of tobacco on oral health. The CDC also reports more than half of smokers who had not seen a dentist in the past six months said it was due to financial concerns.

What Are the Effects of Smoking to Your Teeth?

Your teeth grip the cigarettes you smoke and come in direct contact with the dangerous toxins you inhale when you take a drag. It’s little surprise they’re harmed so severely by tobacco. Symptoms of serious tooth problems may include:

  • Yellowing or browning of the teeth
  • Bleeding gums
  • Buildup of calculus (hardened plaque)
  • Tooth decay
  • Dry mouth

These symptoms often lead to even greater side effects from smoking, such as:

  • A greater need for root canals
  • Loss of teeth
  • Damaged tooth enamel

The issue can be more than just cosmetic. Smoking can impact the way you chew and how your bite aligns. One study found female smokers lose 1.5 teeth every 10 years, and male smokers lose 2.9.

How Does Tobacco Damage Gums?

gum disease due to smoking

Smoking has many effects on the mouth that can lead to the weakening of gums and development of periodontal disease. Smokers are 64.2 percent more likely to develop gum disease than non-smokers. More than 40 percent of all periodontal disease in the United States is attributable to smoking. The problem develops when bacteria in the mouth build up in the gum, or soft tissue surrounding the teeth. The gums become inflamed, and soon periodontal disease develops.

Why Is Tobacco So Bad for Your Gums?

Smokers produce more bacterial plaque in their mouths, in part because the nicotine in cigarettes causes a reduction in the amount of oxygen delivered to the soft tissue in the mouth. At the same time, nicotine also constricts blood vessels, which can impact the length of time it takes to diagnose gum disease. When smokers develop an infection of the gums, it’s less likely to bleed, which usually tips off the dentist to its presence. For this reason, smokers’ diagnosis of gum disease can be delayed, and the disease may worsen in the meantime.

What Are the Effects of Smoking to Your Gums?

Tobacco causes problems with the gums that range from cosmetic to downright painful. Using tobacco in any form, including cigarettes and chewing tobacco, can increase the tartar buildup in your mouth and decrease the flow of saliva, which washes away harmful bacteria. When you smoke, you may notice problems developing with your gums, such as:

  • Tenderness and redness
  • Blood when brushing your teeth or flossing
  • Loosening of teeth
  • Pus oozing between teeth
  • Pain when chewing
  • Foul breath
  • Looser fit for dentures
  • Receding gum line

These are signs of periodontal disease and should be addressed with your family dentist immediately. They can treat the condition through many solutions that range from simple to complex, such as:

  • Anti-microbial mouthwash
  • Oral antibiotics
  • Doxycycline gel
  • Bone surgery
  • Grafting soft tissue
  • Flap surgery to remove tartar from pockets beneath the gums
  • Deep cleaning

Gum Disease Prevention for Smokers

Smokers are eager to know if they can prevent gum disease. Giving up smoking is the best way to fight gum disease, but it’s also important to practice good oral hygiene. Floss daily and brush after every meal using a toothpaste with fluoride. Perhaps the best way to head off future gum issues is to visit your dentist regularly. Your dentist or hygienist can recognize the signs of periodontal disease and work to combat it.

oral health linked to smoking

In addition to smoking’s effects on teeth and gums, this habit can have other unfortunate effects on oral health. You increase your risk of developing oral cancer, including cancer of the tongue. Your salivary glands may become inflamed. You can also raise the chance of leukoplakia, or white patches inside the mouth.

If you smoke, dental implants have less chance of being successful. Bone loss may happen in the jaw, and it can take longer for you to recover from oral surgery. This is especially problematic, because you’re more likely to need oral surgery for the problems smoking causes.

Smoking and Dental Health: E-Cigarettes

Over recent years, e-cigarettes have gained in popularity as a “safer” alternative to smoking tobacco. Proponents claim they drastically reduce the risk of cancer and pulmonary diseases while helping many people quit a habit they never thought they could give up. Is vaping, as e-cig smoking is often called, a better option for your mouth?

The answer is unclear. There has not been a lot of research on the topic. While there are clear benefits to reducing the use of tobacco, which drops the risk of developing oral cancer appreciably, there may be other problems tied to e-cigarettes that have not yet been discovered.

So far complaints about e-cigarettes linked to the mouth have been limited to dryness. Researchers would like to investigate whether the aerosol used for vaping could cause oral hygiene problems. They know toxins exist in the vapor from e-cigarettes, but they believe there are fewer of them than tobacco smoke creates.

It may take years to determine whether e-cigarettes are truly safe, but for now, the smartest course would be to avoid them until more has been learned about vaping. It can take decades to vet new developments such as e-cigs.

Addressing Your Oral Hygiene With Your Dentist

Clearly the use of tobacco of any kind — whether it’s smoking or snuff — can be harmful to your gums and teeth. The best solution to this issue is to stop using tobacco entirely.

We know that’s not easy. Many people have tried and failed to quit smoking. It’s not a character flaw — it’s a difficult habit to end. Yet just because you smoke doesn’t mean you should abandon your oral hygiene habits.

Some people get embarrassed to come to the dentist when they smoke. They worry the hygienists and dentists will judge them for using nicotine. They fear lectures on what they should be doing differently.

There’s a reason why fewer smokers visit the dentist: They don’t want to feel guilty. Dentists don’t want you to feel guilty either, and we don’t want to lecture you. We just want to make sure you’re doing everything to keep your mouth healthy, whatever that should be.

Special Dental Care for Smokers

dental care for smoker

If you haven’t quit smoking yet, here are a few dental tips that can help address your dental hygiene problems:

  • Use mouthwash religiously. You want to pick a strong formula that will zap bacteria. You also want to make sure you swish for at least 60 seconds to kill as many bacteria as possible.
  • Floss every day. Flossing is one of those habits that can quickly go out the window when you’re tired, or if you’ve had a long day, and you’re dying to crawl into bed. But flossing is especially vital for smokers, as it’s an effective way to avoid the buildup of calculus on teeth. If you notice a lot of bleeding as you floss, it could be a sign of early periodontal disease.
  • Have your tongue and gums checked closely at your dental appointments. Let your dentist and hygienist know you are a smoker, so they can closely watch for signs of periodontal disease and oral cancer. The quicker you act after detecting something, the greater the chance of catching a serious problem early.

Dental Assistance: Can You Reverse the Effects of Smoking?

The best thing you can do for your dental health is, of course, to quit smoking. Your dentist or hygienist may be able to offer information on smoking cessation programs or tell you what has worked for other patients in the past. At AZ Family Dental, we recognize that quitting smoking can be one of the most difficult things you’ll ever try to do, and it can take time to work. We work hard to help our patients restore their dental health through a handful of procedures. If you need to restore your smile, we can perform many services at our Phoenix-area office, including:

  • Veneers — Veneers are porcelain overlays applied to your teeth to improve the appearance of your smile. They are permanent and attached with cement. With this form of cosmetic dentistry, you’re able to keep the existing teeth in your mouth but whiten and freshen them to brighten your mouth. Veneers may be a good option if smoking has resulted in discolored teeth, but the majority of them are still in place and are structurally sound. It takes a few visits to apply a full set of veneers.
  • Teeth Whitening — Want to improve the coloring of your teeth, but don’t want something as involved as a veneer? Teeth whitening may be the answer. At AZ Family Dental, we can bleach teeth many shades lighter than their current appearance. Whether you just want to remove a couple of stains on your front teeth, or you want to lighten all of them, your dentist can help you find the right look.
  • Correct Your Bite — When the chemistry and layout of your mouth change, such as when you undergo surgery for gum disease or a tooth falls out, your bite may change, too. Luckily, this problem can be corrected. Your dentist will need to perform X-rays. Often teeth are reshaped to achieve the optimal bite, which can cut down on mouth pain and headaches.
  • Dental Implants — If you have lost teeth due to smoking, your dentist can design dental implants, essentially replacement teeth that replace the root and crown of the tooth that used to be there. This is more permanent and involved than a pair of dentures. Implants are permanent and take several weeks to complete, from the making of the implant to the follow-up visit after it’s been implanted.

Smokers Welcome: Come Check out Our Dental Office

AZ Family Dental welcomes all patients to our practice, whether you’re a smoker or non-smoker. We have helped many patients deal with gum disease and tooth issues caused by smoking. We can help with cosmetic dentistry procedures to restore your teeth to their former luster. Contact us to schedule a visit today.