Originally published November 2020. Updated November 2021.
Despite the fact that tobacco use remains the largest preventable cause of death and illness in the world, a staggering 32.4 million Americans still smoke cigarettes.
The American Cancer Society (ACS) reports that overall rates of smoking have declined drastically over several decades, yet more than 16 million Americans are currently living with a smoking-related disease.
We all know smoking increases the risk for many conditions, like lung cancer and heart disease. But, many smoking-related problems present themselves early and most obviously in the mouth. These can range from less serious issues, like tooth discoloration, to potentially fatal diseases such as cancers of the mouth and throat.
The nicotine, tar, and other chemicals in tobacco lead to a buildup of bacteria that is harmful in many ways. What’s more, tobacco weakens the body’s immune system which makes fighting these illnesses more difficult.
Read on to get a better understanding of how tobacco is connected to your oral health, the signs and symptoms to look for, and why smoking cessation will be the best thing you can do for your mouth.
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The Effects Smoking Has on Teeth and Gums
Smoking and other tobacco products lead to oral health issues in three primary ways:
- Tobacco increases the amount of the bacteria in the mouth;
- Tobacco interferes with the normal function of gum tissue cells, causing a greater risk for infection;
- Tobacco impairs blood flow, which makes it harder for your body to heal;
Not all the oral effects of smoking are the same for everyone. They can vary for several reasons, including how much you use and how long you’ve been smoking.
Due to the nicotine and tar in tobacco, “smokers mouth” can happen incredibly quickly. It can include:
- Discolored teeth;
- Bad breath;
- Increased buildup of plaque and tartar that leads to cavities and gum disease;
In some cases, people may even develop mouth sores from smoking cigarettes, or a condition known as “smokers tongue” which causes the tongue to look hairy and even turn a shade of yellow, green, or brown.
There are two main types of gum disease:
1. Gingivitis: When plaque and tartar build up and get under the gums and create harmful inflammation. Symptoms include red, tender, swollen gums that bleed easily.
2. Periodontal Disease: If left untreated, gingivitis can progress to a more advanced form of gum disease called periodontitis.
Periodontal disease is an inflammatory infection that breaks down the gum tissues. Over time, it can cause receding gums, deep pockets and bone loss that can lead to more frequent and serious infections. Without treatment, teeth may become mobile, fall out or need to be extracted.
Deep cleaning below the gum line, or surgery, are treatments for periodontitis.
Mouth and Throat Cancer
In the most serious cases, the use of tobacco can lead to cancers of the mouth, lips, tongue, and throat. According to the Mouth Cancer Foundation, smokers are six times more likely to develop these cancers than nonsmokers. Symptoms could include swelling or lumps around your neck or mouth, persistent sores or patches, difficulty swallowing, or repeated bleeding in the mouth and throat.
Your dentist is specially trained to evaluate you for signs of oral cancer, and keeping regular dental check-ups improves the likelihood of any abnormalities in the mouth being detected as early as possible.
How to Quit Smoking and Improve Your Oral and Overall Health
The number-one way to reduce all these risks is to stop smoking. Or better yet, never start. The American Lung Association offers these tips to quit smoking:
- Just quit. Don’t switch to e-cigarettes, which can be just as harmful. Talk to your doctor about medications or counseling services that could help you quit smoking.
- Write down a list of your personal motivations for quitting.
- Make a plan to quit and find a support network to help keep you accountable.
- Ask questions and do your research. Know what to expect when quitting and the challenges to be prepared for.
- Find healthy ways to keep yourself occupied. Exercise, take up a new hobby, or do something fun with friends who don’t smoke.
The process may be difficult, but the benefits of quitting are significant. Over time, your heart rate and blood pressure will drop, your lung function increases, and your risk of heart disease drastically drops. The ACS offers a Quit Smoking Timeline that describes the health benefits you can expect within with just minutes to over a decade of kicking the habit.
With proper at-home care and visits to the dentist, some gum disease can be reversed or stopped in its tracks. What’s more, a study published by the Journal of Periodontology found that the likelihood of developing periodontal disease decreased significantly with each additional year since quitting smoking.
As Robert Silverman, DDS, a Delta Dental consultant, has summed it up, “The lesson is: Don’t smoke if you want to save your teeth — and your life.”
The Centers for Disease Control also offers some amazing resources to help you quit smoking. Call 1-800-QUIT-NOW for free support, download the quitSTART app to get tailored tips, and connect with others on social media who are also looking to live a smoke-free life.
Use our “Find a Dentist” tool and start taking back your smile!
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