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Oral Health—Four Common Problems and How to Prevent Them

We all know that proper oral hygiene is essential for strong, healthy teeth. However, many of us only get concerned about our oral health only when things start to go wrong. What we really want is to prevent problems before they begin, especially as the pain of tooth and gum disease can be intense and may lead to other, more serious problems if left untreated. In this article, you’ll find information about how to promote the health of your teeth and why oral hygiene is so important.

Oral Health: Common Problems, Prevention Tips - Visual guide addressing four oral health issues with practical preventive measures.

Oral health might seem like a small part of your overall well-being, but problems in your mouth can directly affect your digestive health, increase your risk of heart disease, lung disease, stroke, and diabetes. Poor oral health can also influence pregnancy outcomes, not to mention your mood, your confidence, and your bank balance. While common problems such as cavities or gum disease can be treated at the dentist’s office, oral cancer can be life-threatening and will require more intensive care.


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Tooth anatomy

Before we discuss dental problems, let’s review the anatomy of the tooth to make it easier to understand why certain conditions can cause pain, bleeding, and other symptoms.

A tooth has two main parts: the crown—the visible part of the tooth—and the root, which is anchored in the bone beneath the gumline.

Each tooth has three layers:

  • The white, outermost layer of the tooth that comes into contact with food, saliva, and everything else that enters your mouth, is called enamel. This is a tough, thin, translucent covering that protects the inner tooth from damage and infection and insulates it from extreme temperatures. Although tooth enamel is the hardest tissue in the body, it can chip, crack, and wear away.
  • The next layer, which makes up the main portion of the tooth, is called dentin. Dentin is much softer than enamel. When exposed, it can be easily damaged and lead to more serious problems such as hypersensitivity or bacterial infection.
  • The innermost layer is the pulp chamber. Pulp is a soft tissue that contains nerves and blood vessels to supply the tooth with oxygen and give it feeling. An infection that reaches this area can be intensely painful.

Now let’s take a look at some of the things that can go wrong when we don’t give our oral health sufficient attention.

Four diseases related to oral hygiene: symptoms and prevention


Cavities, or tooth decay, are caused by bacteria found in the mouth. These bacteria produce acids that break down tooth enamel. Tooth decay mostly appears on the crowns where the teeth rub against each other and come into contact with food, but it can also occur under the gums or between the teeth.

Most people will get at least one cavity in their lifetime. Usually, this isn’t a major concern, especially if treated in the early stages. If they are not filled, however, continued decay can lead to chronic pain and tooth loss. In severe cases, bacteria that enter the tooth through a cavity in the enamel can reach the pulp and enter your bloodstream, causing serious infection.

Symptoms of cavities

  • black, brown, or yellow spots on the enamel
  • temperature sensitivity
  • toothache
  • sharp pain when eating or drinking
  • swelling in the infected area
  • bad breath or a weird taste in the mouth

Unfortunately, not all cavities cause pain in the early stages, so they can be difficult to notice at first. Luckily, a simple oral hygiene routine goes a long way toward keeping your teeth in good shape over the years.

How can I improve my oral hygiene and prevent cavities?

  • Brush your teeth at least twice a day. Whenever you eat, tiny food particles remain in your mouth. If you don’t clean your teeth regularly, these particles mix with saliva to form a clear, sticky film called plaque, which covers your teeth and speeds up tooth decay. This is because plaque contains sugars that bacteria love. The more they enjoy their sticky smorgasbord, the more enamel-destroying acid they release into your mouth. To keep the little beasties at bay, brush gently—mornings and evenings—with a soft-bristle toothbrush that won’t damage your teeth or make your gums recede. And, while there is some controversy about fluoride, most dentists continue to recommend using fluoride toothpaste for its effectiveness in preventing cavities, strengthening tooth enamel, and limiting the growth of oral bacteria.
  • Floss daily. Flossing removes food particles that settle between the teeth and are impossible to reach with a toothbrush. There are many types of dental floss—synthetic and natural, waxed and unwaxed, flavoured and unflavoured. Your choice will depend on the spacing and surface texture of your teeth. Some people prefer dental picks, which also come in a variety of materials, while others enjoy the effects of an air- or water-flossing system that can clean narrow gaps more effectively.
  • Avoid foods high in sugar and acid. Bacteria feed on carbohydrates that make up many of our favourite foods, not only sweets and pastries but also breads, pasta, raisins, dairy products, and many others. Bacteria feed on the sugars in these foods, breaking them down into acids that eat away at tooth enamel. Acidic foods and beverages such as citrus fruits, coffee, wine, and sodas speed up the process.
  • Protect your teeth from bruxism. Bruxism is involuntary clenching or grinding of the teeth. It can happen during the day, but night bruxism is more dangerous, as it’s impossible to control the strength of your bite when you’re sleeping. Chronic clenching and grinding will wear down your tooth enamel over time and can expose the sensitive dentin to bacteria. To prevent this from happening, find out Everything You Need to Know About Bruxism.

Canker Sores - Visual guide on causes, symptoms, and tips for managing these oral ulcers

Canker sores

Canker sores are small, painful ulcers that form in the soft tissue of the mouth—usually on the lips or inside the cheeks, but they can also appear on the gums, the tongue, or the roof of the mouth.  Canker sores can be very painful, making it difficult to eat and drink. Canker sores typically start with a localized tingling or burning sensation that soon becomes raised red spot and starts to hurt. Within a day or two the spot develops into a sore. No one knows exactly why this happens, but vitamin deficiency may be a contributing factor.

Types of canker sores:

  • Minor canker sores are less than 1 cm in diameter and generally harmless, apart from the pain they cause. They are round, white in the middle, with red and inflamed tissue around the edges. And they typically heal within a week or so without any medication. The white part of the sore is part of the wound and contains residue of dead bacteria and other tissue. Don’t try to pop or pick it—that will only make it worse. Most canker sores—85%—are minor sores.
  • Major canker sores are much bigger and deeper and can vary in shape. Because they take up more surface area—1 to 3 cm in diameter—they can be very painful and take several weeks to heal. Only about 10% of all canker sores get this big.
  • Herpetiform canker sores appear as small clusters of pin-head-sized sores. They account for less than 5% of canker sores. Sometimes they can merge into one major canker sore.

How to treat canker sores

Most canker sores resolve on their own in a few days or weeks. Even so, they are quite painful so you might want to speed up the healing process. Rinsing your mouth with warm, salty water can be an effective home remedy. Your pharmacy will have over-the-counter gels and ointments that help relieve pain and reduce inflammation. In severe cases, your doctor might prescribe antibiotics or recommend cauterizing the sore to remove damaged tissue and keep the infection from spreading.

How can I prevent canker sores?

There is no sure-fire way to prevent canker sores. Anyone can get them, although there is some evidence that susceptibility may run in families. To lower your chances of developing mouth ulcers, eat a balanced diet, avoid ingesting very acidic foods, and quit smoking. Tissue damage (like accidentally biting the inside of your cheek) can develop into a mouth ulcer, so be gentle with yourself. If wearing braces or a mouth guard or grinding your teeth regularly causes soft tissue damage in your mouth, ask your dentist to help you find a solution.


Who is most prone to mouth ulcers?

  • people in their twenties
  • women in the pre-menstrual phase of their cycle
  • smokers and heavy drinkers
  • people experiencing a lot of stress
  • people suffering from conditions that suppress the immune system, such as Lupus, Behcet’s disease, Celiac disease, Ulcerative colitis, Crohn’s disease, or AIDS

Gum disease

Inflammation of the gums, or gingivitis, is caused by bacterial overgrowth. Your gums may be a little swollen in places and can bleed when you brush or floss. If left untreated, gingivitis can progress into a more serious form of gum disease, or periodontitis. This is when the infection reaches the tissue and bone that hold your teeth in place.

What causes unhealthy gums?

Overaccumulation of plaque makes the gums to recede, creating pockets that are difficult to clean. Plaque-filled crevices like these are a perfect breeding ground for bacteria. If the condition continues to progress, the gums can be damaged, and some teeth may fall out. On the other hand, when treated early, gingivitis is entirely reversible.

Symptoms of gum disease

  • Bleeding gums. This is the earliest and most common symptom. Inflamed gums bleed easily from brushing or flossing; in more serious cases, just chewing food can make them bleed.
  • Red and swollen gums. Healthy gums are firm and pink; the colour can vary slightly from person to person.
  • Gum pockets develop and become bigger.
  • Bad breath or a strange taste in the mouth.
  • Receding gums.
  • Loose teeth. If left untreated, gum disease is the most common reason for tooth loss.

How can I prevent gum inflammation?

The best way to avoid gingivitis and periodontitis is to brush your teeth gently and thoroughly at least twice every day. Flossing is also imperative. Sometimes people avoid flossing because it makes their gums bleed, however having tender gums means inflammation is already present. The best way to get them back to normal is to remove the plaque and thus the bacteria doing the damage—this means flossing. If flossing is too painful or causes a lot of bleeding, try using a water-pick or air-flosser; these devices project a strong and targeted stream of air or water that effectively cleans in between your teeth and removes plaque.

Rinse with mouthwash after brushing your teeth. If you already have gingivitis, your dentist might recommend a more potent antibacterial mouthwash to help reduce the infection.

Visit your dentist for regular cleanings and for check-ups. A dental hygienist can remove plaque build-up and stains much more thoroughly than you can manage at home with your toothbrush and floss. Having this done once or twice a year goes a long way toward preventing inflammation and infection.

And stop using tobacco if you haven’t already done so.

Mouth cancer

Mouth cancer is the most serious oral health problem on the list. In some cases, it can be fatal. Unfortunately, this is a common form of cancer. Rates are increasing with people falling ill at younger ages. The 5-year survival rate for oral cancer is 68.5%.

What are the first signs of cancer in the mouth?

Like any other cancer, mouth cancer can be difficult to spot in the early stages. Cancer symptoms can be difficult to distinguish from other oral conditions.

Signs to look for:

  • persistent mouth ulcers that last longer than a few weeks
  • lumps under the tongue, inside the mouth, or in the neck
  • white or red patches on the mouth and tongue
  • numbness in the tongue or other parts of the mouth
  • speech impairment

What causes mouth cancer, and how can I prevent it?

Unfortunately, no one is immune to cancer, but there are ways to limit your risk. The most common causes of oral cancers are:

  • Smoking or chewing tobacco. Around 85–90% of people with oral cancer use some form of tobacco.
  • Drinking alcohol. Around 35% of cases are attributed to alcohol consumption.
  • Poor diet and lack of essential nutrients. Your immune system requires a lot of nutrients from fruits, vegetables, grains, seeds, fish, and lean meats to protect the body from cancer and to support oral health.
  • The human papillomavirus (HPV) type 16. Around 25% of mouth cancer cases can be attributed to HPV—the most common sexually transmitted infection. HPV can spread through vaginal, anal, and oral sex, or through very close skin contact with an infected person. Learn more about how HPV spreads, its symptoms, and prevention.

Unfortunately, no one is immune to cancer, but you can limit your risk by eating nutrient-dense foods and avoiding tobacco and alcohol.

Quick health tips for teeth and gums

  • Brush your teeth twice a day, remembering the 30/30 rule: Wait at least 30 minutes after eating or drinking before you brush, and wait at least 30 minutes after brushing before you eat or drink (besides water).
  • Floss daily, not only when you have food stuck in your mouth.
  • Use a tongue scraper to remove excess bacteria from your tongue.
  • Drink more water to rinse some of the bacteria away.
  • Eat crunchy vegetables to improve your jaw structure and keep your teeth healthy.
  • Never go to sleep without brushing your teeth—you don’t want bacteria feasting all night.
  • Replace your toothbrush every 3 months.
  • Brush your teeth at a 45-degree angle to target the lower teeth and gum pockets.
  • Choose a soft toothbrush to protect your tooth enamel and gums.
  • Don’t share your toothbrush with anyone, even your spouse.

Final words

Dental and oral problems can cause a lot of discomfort but keeping up with basic oral hygiene will limit your risk and so you can enjoy strong, healthy teeth for a lifetime.

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