Sometimes, oral health affects more than just your teeth. Preventable oral diseases such as tooth decay and periodontal (gum) disease are among the most common health problems in Australia, and their impact on overall health and wellbeing can go beyond bad breath.[1]

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Australia's National Oral Health Plan 2015-2024 was founded on the statement:

"Oral health is fundamental to overall health, wellbeing and quality of life."[1]

Maintaining a good standard of oral health can help lower the risks of associated health problems and other consequences that may impact your quality of life.[1] These may include:

1. Poor nutrition

Crooked, damaged or missing teeth can affect the ability to chew normally, and some oral diseases and infections can make teeth feel painful or sensitive when eating or drinking. This can cause some people to avoid certain types of food or drink, which could mean they're not getting the nutrition their bodies need.[1]

In a recent survey of oral health and dental care in Australia, approximately 20.9 percent of adults said they avoid eating certain foods due to problems with their teeth.[2] Poor oral health has been linked to a lower intake of dietary fibre and other important nutrients such as beta carotene, folate and vitamin C.[3]

Missing teeth can have an even greater impact on diet and nutrition, which can affect general health and complicate existing health conditions.[4]

2. Disrupted sleep and productivity

Whether as a result of pain and discomfort, worry or other factors, poor oral health may cause loss of sleep in some instances. This in turn can affect daytime productivity and cause physical and psychological strain. Sleep problems are believed to be responsible for the loss of millions of work days in Australia every year, as well as lost school days that can disrupt children's education and socialisation.[1][4]

Frequent sleep disturbances such as loud snoring or choking and gasping in the night may be symptoms of obstructive sleep apnoea (OSA). This occurs when the throat is partly or completely blocked during sleep, which can sometimes happen hundreds of times a night in severe cases.[5]

As well as causing tiredness and lethargy, there's evidence that sleep apnoea may be linked to high blood pressure, systemic diseases such as heart disease and diabetes and mood disorders such as depression and anxiety. Tiredness can also increase the risk of being involved in motor vehicle accidents and other incidents.[5]

3. Headaches or jaw pain

If you have a jaw joint disorder or a teeth grinding habit (also called bruxism), you may experience side effects like headaches or jaw pain.

Temporomandibular joint disorders (sometimes called TMJD) can cause restricted movement in your jaws, sometimes causing them to lock or “click” when you move them. Headaches and jaw pain are a common side effect of these issues.

Teeth grinding is another issue that may cause pain or discomfort. In both cases, your dentist may be able to diagnose and treat the problem. For instance, a custom-made mouthguard can be a solution for those who experience teeth grinding.

3. Risk of infection

Oral health problems and injuries to the mouth can leave the mouth vulnerable to infections, which can enter the bloodstream and spread to other parts of the body.[4]

If oral conditions are allowed to develop without seeking professional care, the risk of infection and poorer long-term health outcomes increases and hospitalisation may be needed. Oral conditions are the third most common reason for acute preventable hospital admissions in Australia.[1]

Many of these emergencies could be avoided by taking steps to improve or maintain good oral health, including visiting a dentist at the first sign of anything unusual in or around the mouth.[1]

Links to other health problems

A growing body of research suggests that oral diseases such as tooth decay, gum disease and oral cancer may be linked with chronic diseases in other parts of the body, including cardiovascular (heart) disease, heart and lung infections, stroke and aspiration pneumonia.[1]

Gum disease in particular has been associated with other health issues, including rheumatoid arthritis, diabetic complications and premature birth and low birth weight for pregnant women, although no direct causality has been proven.[1]

One of the connections between oral diseases and other chronic diseases is that they share certain risk factors in common, such as inconsistent oral hygiene, tobacco use and excessive sugar and alcohol consumption. Improving oral hygiene and making dietary and lifestyle changes could help to lower risk factors across the board.[1]

How to look after your oral health

Something positive to keep in mind is that you can take steps right now to improve your oral health.[1] You can lower your risk of developing oral diseases and their associated health and wellbeing effects by improving your oral hygiene and making positive changes to your diet and lifestyle.[6]

To maintain good oral health, dentists recommend that you:

  • brush your teeth with fluoride toothpaste twice a day, for two minutes each time
  • replace your toothbrush or electric toothbrush head every three months or after sickness
  • floss between your teeth at least once every day to remove trapped food and plaque
  • drink plenty of water to stay hydrated, especially fluoridated tap water that can also help to protect your teeth
  • avoid sugary and acidic food and drink that can damage or weaken your teeth
  • try to quit smoking and moderate your alcohol consumption
  • have regular check-ups with your dentist so they can give you a thorough oral health assessment and personalised advice

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References

[1] Australian Government. Healthy Mouths, Healthy Lives: National Oral Health Plan 2015-2024 [Online] 2015 [Accessed June 2018] Available from: http://www.coaghealthcouncil.gov.au/Portals/0/Australia%27s%20National%20Oral%20Health%20Plan%202015-2024_uploaded%20170216.pdf

[2] Australian Institute of Health and Welfare. Oral health and dental care in Australia: key facts and figures 2015 [Online] 2016 [Accessed June 2018] Available from: https://www.aihw.gov.au/reports/dental-oral-health/oral-health-and-dental-care-in-australia-key-facts-and-figures-2015/

[3] World Health Organization. Oral health, general health and quality of life [Online] 2005 [Accessed June 2018] Available from: http://www.who.int/bulletin/volumes/83/9/editorial30905html/en/

[4] Australian Government Department of Health. Outcomes and Impact of Oral Disease [Online] 2012 [Accessed June 2018] Available from: http://www.health.gov.au/internet/publications/publishing.nsf/Content/report_nacdh~report_nacdh_ch1~report_nacdh_out

[5] Healthdirect. Sleep apnoea [Online] 2017 [Accessed June 2018] Available from: https://www.healthdirect.gov.au/sleep-apnoea

[6] Healthdirect. Dental care [Online] 2017 [Accessed June 2018] Available from: https://www.healthdirect.gov.au/dental-care