Tobacco affects oral health in two major ways: oral cavity and oropharyngeal cancers and gum disease.
Smoking and oral cancer
The link between smoking and lung cancer is well known. What isn’t as widely understood is that tobacco use can also lead to oral and oropharyngeal cancer. In fact, it’s the eighth most common type of cancer among men.
The risk of developing mouth or throat cancers is related to how much and how long a person uses tobacco. Smokers are also at a 10 times higher risk for oral cancer compared to nonsmokers.
Smoking tobacco can also cause cancers of the larynx (voice box), lungs, esophagus, kidneys, bladder and many other organs. Oral tobacco products are linked with cancers of the cheek, gums and inner surface of the lips. Nicotine, whether smoked or vaped, restricts blood flow to the gums, which can contribute to periodontal disease. In fact, a recent study found that 43% of people using e-cigarettes had gum disease and oral infections.
Detecting cancer of the oral cavity and oropharynx (the middle part of the throat)
Because it’s difficult to detect oral cavity and oropharyngeal cancer early, two-thirds of cases are diagnosed in late stages. According to the American Cancer Society:
- More than 54,000 new cases of oral cavity and oropharyngeal cancer are diagnosed each year
- Over 11,230 deaths due to oral cavity and oropharyngeal cancer occur each year
Still, many precancers and cancers in these areas can be found when they’re small during routine screening exams by a dentist, doctor or dental hygienist, or by self-exam.
Smoking and periodontal disease
Tobacco use is also one of the most significant risk factors in the development and progression of periodontal (gum) disease, a leading cause of tooth loss. Gum disease starts with bacteria (germs) on your teeth that get under your gums. Smoking weakens your body’s ability to fight off gum infection and makes it harder for your gums to heal.
According to the Centers for Disease and Control (CDC):
- If you smoke, you have twice the risk for gum disease compared with a nonsmoker
- The more cigarettes you smoke, the greater your risk for gum disease
- The longer you smoke, the greater your risk for gum disease
- Treatments for gum disease may not work as well for people who smoke
Other consequences related to smoking include:
- Delayed healing after a tooth extraction or other oral surgery
- Bad breath
- Stained teeth and tongue
- Diminished sense of taste
- Mouth sores
Prevention and treatment of gum disease
Regular cleanings at your dentist’s office and daily brushing and flossing can help prevent gum disease.
More severe gum disease may require deep cleaning below the gumline, a prescription mouth rinse or medicine, or surgery to remove tartar under the gums or heal bone or gums. If you smoke or use chewing tobacco, quitting will help your gums heal after treatment.