What is oral health?

The word "oral" refers to the mouth, which includes your teeth, gums, jawbone, and supporting tissues. Taking good care of your oral health can prevent disease in your mouth. Oral health can affect the health of your entire body. Good oral health does not just mean you have pretty teeth. Your whole mouth needs care to be in good health.

What are the most common oral health problems?

The most common oral health problems are cavities and gum disease.


We are all at risk of tooth decay, or cavities. (Cavities look like chalky white and/or brown holes on your teeth). Bacteria (germs) that naturally live in our mouths use sugar in food to make acids. Over time, the acids destroy the outside layer of your teeth. Then cavities and other tooth harm occur.

Gum diseases

Gum diseases are infections caused by bacteria, along with mucus and other particles that form a sticky plaque on your teeth. Plaque that is left on teeth hardens and forms tartar. Gingivitis (jin-juh-VEYE-tuhss) is a mild form of gum disease. It causes red, swollen gums. It can also make the gums bleed easily. Gingivitis can be caused by plaque buildup. And the longer plaque and tartar stay on teeth, the more harm they do. Most gingivitis can be treated with daily brushing and flossing and regular cleanings at the dentist's office. This form of gum disease does not lead to loss of bone or tissue around the teeth. But if it is not treated, it can advance to periodontitis (pair-ee-oh-don-TEYE-tuhss). Then the gums pull away from the teeth and form infected "pockets." You may also lose supporting bone. If you have periodontitis, see your dentist for treatment. Otherwise your teeth may loosen over time and need to be removed.

Your risk of gum disease is higher if you:

  • Smoke
  • Have a disease such as diabetes or HIV/AIDS
  • Use methamphetamine

What are some other problems I might have with my mouth?

Burning mouth.

People with this condition describe a burning feeling in the mouth or tongue. It is most common in postmenopausal women. The cause is unknown, but might be linked to:

  • Hormones
  • Dry mouth (which can be caused by many medicines and disorders such as Sjögren's syndrome or diabetes)
  • Taste problems
  • Nutritional deficiencies
  • Use of ACE inhibitors (blood pressure medicines)
  • Anxiety and depression
  • Dentures that do not fit
  • Infections (especially fungal infections)

Talk to your doctor or dentist if you have burning mouth. Treatment depends on the cause-if it can be determined-aadjusting your dentures, vitamin supplements, or pain or other medicines.

Cold sores.

These small, painful sores are caused by herpes simplex virus type 1. Once you are exposed to the virus, it can hide in your body for years. Things that trigger the virus and lead to cold sores include:

  • getting too much sun
  • having a cold or infection
  • having your period
  • feeling stressed

Cold sores can spread from person to person. They most often form on the lips and sometimes under the nose or chin. The sores heal in about 7 to 10 days without scarring. You can buy over-the-counter drugs to put on cold sores to help relieve pain. If you get cold sores a lot, talk with your doctor or dentist about a prescription for an antiviral drug. These drugs can help reduce healing time and the number of new sores.

Canker sores.

These sores are small ulcers inside the mouth. They have a white or gray base and a red border. Women are more likely than men to have canker sores that recur. The cause of canker sores is unknown. Risk factors include:

  • fatigue
  • stress
  • your period
  • a cut on the inside of your cheek or on your tongue
  • allergies
  • celiac disease
  • Crohn’s disease

Canker sores most often heal on their own in 1 to 3 weeks. See your dentist if you get a large sore (larger than a half inch). You may need medicine to treat it.

To help with pain:

  • avoid hot, spicy foods
  • use mild mouthwashes or salt water
  • try over-the-counter coatings or pain medicines

No proven way exists to prevent canker sores. If you get them often, talk with your dentist.


Thrush is also called oral candidiasis (CAN-dih-dye-uh-sis). These fungal infections appear as red, yellow, or white lesions, flat or slightly raised, in the mouth or throat. It can look like cottage cheese. This fungus lives naturally in your mouth. Your risk of getting thrush increases if:

  • You have a weak immune system
  • You don't make enough saliva
  • You take antibiotics

Treatment includes antifungal mouthwash or lozenges. If the infection spreads or your immune system is weak, you may need antifungal medicine.

Thrush is common among:        

  • Denture wearers
  • People who are very young or elderly
  • People with dry mouth
  • People with HIV or other chronic disease (like diabetes)

Dry mouth

Dry mouth is also called xerostomia (ZEER-oh-STOM-mee-uh). This problem happens when you don't have enough saliva, or spit, in your mouth. Some reasons why people get dry mouth include:

  • Side effect of medicines or medical treatment, such as cancer treatments
  • Health problems, such as diabetes, Parkinson's disease, and Sjogren's syndrome
  • A blocked salivary gland

Dry mouth may make it hard to eat, swallow, taste, and speak. If left untreated, it can lead to cavities. This is because saliva helps break down bits of food and helps stop acid from forming plaque on your teeth. Treatment of dry mouth depends on the cause and can range from medicines to diet changes. To lessen the dryness, use artificial saliva, suck on sugarless candy, do not smoke, do not drink alcohol, and use a humidifier. Tell your doctor if you have dry mouth.

Bad breath

Bad breath is also called halitosis (hal-lih-TOH-suhss). Bad-smelling breath can be caused by several things, including:

  • Poor oral hygiene
  • Some foods
  • Dentures
  • Gum disease
  • Dry mouth
  • Tobacco use
  • Respiratory, digestive, or other health problems
  • Some medicines

Practicing good oral hygiene and avoiding tobacco and some foods often helps people with bad-smelling breath. You may want to try using a tongue scraper to clean food from your tongue. You could also just brush your tongue with your toothbrush. But if doing so doesn't seem to help or if you always need mouthwash to hide bad breath, talk to your dentist.

Oral cancer.

This cancer can affect any part of the mouth and part of the throat. If you smoke or chew tobacco, you are at higher risk. Excessive alcohol use along with smoking raises your risk even more. However, nonsmokers can also develop oral cancer. To help protect yourself from lip cancer, use a lip balm with sunscreen (exposure to the sun can cause lip cancer).

Oral cancer most often occurs after age 40. It isn't always painful, so it may go undetected until the late stages. Ask your doctor to check for signs of oral cancer during your regular checkup. Oral cancer often starts as a tiny white or red spot or sore anywhere in the mouth. Other signs include:

  • A sore that bleeds easily or does not heal
  • A color change in the tissues of the mouth
  • A lump, rough spot, or other change
  • Pain, tenderness, or numbness anywhere in the mouth or on the lips
  • Problems chewing, swallowing, speaking, or moving the jaw or tongue
  • A change in the way the teeth fit together

Read more about these issues, and especially oral health problems of women at this site at


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