You may already know that oral cancers can be devastating to your health, but did you know that simply practicing good oral hygiene every single day can have a significant impact on your overall well-being?
“You know what they say: The mouth is a gateway to the rest of the body,” says Shahrooz Yazdani, DDS, CEO and director of Yazdani Family Dentistry.
“This means that if left untreated, oral infections can spread to other parts of the body and become a serious threat to your overall health. Bacteria that cause gum disease can enter the bloodstream and contribute to health complications in the rest of your body, such as diabetes complications, labor issues, osteoporosis, or heart conditions.”
If that sounds scary, take heart: there are a variety of basic, everyday ways you can take control of your oral hygiene, which, consequently, can positively influence your overall health.
Here are some of the simplest, expert-endorsed methods for maintaining a solid dental health regimen.
1. Change Your Toothbrush Regularly
Dentist Rashmi Byakodi, a health and wellness writer and the editor of Best for Nutrition, says swapping out your toothbrush regularly is one important way to keep your mouth healthy.
“It’s difficult to determine exactly when a toothbrush should be replaced,” he says.
“[But] the American Dental Association recommends every three or four months or sooner if the bristles become frayed. If you brush for two minutes, two times a day, three months may be equivalent to approximately 500 minutes of brushing per recommended lifetime of a toothbrush. Even toothbrush packaging sometimes includes the manufacturer’s advice that the toothbrush should be discarded after three months.”
Byakodi also points out that a toothbrush’s ability to efficiently remove plaque decreases with wear. “However, survey reports indicate that the wear rate of the brushes seemed to be the determining factor in the loss of efficacy, rather than the age of the toothbrush.”
So be sure to keep an eye on your bristles and mark your calendar (or set a phone reminder) to swap out your brush every three months or so.
2. Get on a Regular Schedule
“I know you’ve heard it a thousand times by now, but brushing your teeth every morning and night (and after meals if possible) is vitally important to your oral and physical health,” Yazdani says.
“Brushing your teeth will remove plaque and food debris from your teeth and gums, preventing tooth decay and gum disease. Another vitally important dental care practice is flossing once a day. Flossing helps remove food particles stuck between your teeth that normal brushing just can’t reach. Flossing also helps prevent gum disease by removing plaque buildup below the gum line. Another non-negotiable practice is visiting your dentist regularly for cleanings and checkups. The professionals know best, and can provide cleanings and updates on your oral health that you will not be able to see on your own.”
An optimal oral health schedule also includes regular dental check-ups, which may help catch early signs of cancer.
“Don’t assume that no pain means no problems,” says Greg Grillo, DDS of Express Dentist.
“Most dental problems, including oral cancer, don’t hurt until they involve significant damage. Dental check-ups can save time, money, and discomfort. [Get] check-ups, oral cancer screenings, and cleanings every six months with a dentist.”
3. Yes, flossing is a must
“We essentially get cavities in two ways,” explains Joseph Salim DMD, owner and founder of Sutton Place Dental Associates.
“Through the grooves and pits and fissures of the chewing surfaces of our back teeth or at the contact point between two adjacent teeth. The only thing that can reach and cleanse those contact points is a floss that passes through it.
By not flossing, we increase the likelihood of getting this second type of cavity, called an interproximal decay. Moreover, the gum area between two adjacent teeth will never get cleansed and stimulated enough for proper blood flow by not flossing. This will cause gum inflammation, a precursor for potential gum disease. Another corollary of not flossing is that many people end up over-brushing forcefully to make their teeth feel cleaner. This mistake causes trauma and leads to irreversible recession of the gums.”
4. Don’t forget to brush your tongue too
“Probably the most common mistake I see has to do with people not brushing their tongues,” Yazdani says.
“It’s important to brush your tongue every time you brush your teeth, because it reduces the amount of germs in your mouth that cause bad breath, tooth decay, and gum disease.
Another common oral health mistake people often make is not brushing long enough. You should brush for two full minutes, each time.”
Some people find that using an electric toothbrush with a built-in timer can be a helpful hack for ensuring they give their teeth the full two minutes of attention they need at every brushing — one study even found that using an electric toothbrush could improve your focus on the task at hand, which could potentially improve how well you clean your teeth.
5. Consider cancer screenings an essential part of your oral care routine
It’s important to know that smoking, of course, has far-reaching detrimental effects on your overall health that extend beyond your dental care.
Smoking (and other forms of tobacco use) has been shown to cause a variety of cancers, heart disease, stroke, lung diseases, diabetes, and other potentially fatal health problems. Smoking also increases risk for tuberculosis, certain eye diseases, and immune system issues. If you are a smoker, one of the most beneficial things you can do for your overall well-being is discuss a cessation plan with your healthcare provider and quit smoking as soon as you can.
Yazdani agrees, noting that cancer screenings are a critical aspect of preventive medicine “but most people don’t associate them with oral health, even though they should,” he says.
“Dental professionals are required to have training in head and neck pathology, so they’re highly skilled at spotting any abnormalities in the mouth that may warrant further investigation.
It’s not uncommon for dentists to spot potentially serious medical conditions during an examination — particularly when it comes to oral cancer.
Oral cancer can be a very deadly form of cancer because it often goes undetected until it has reached a late stage (stages III or IV). When detected early, oral cancer has a much higher chance of survival. Dentists can help you or a loved one identify potential medical problems before they become serious issues.