Originally published May 2021. Updated May 2022.
May 8-14 is Women’s Health Week, which is a great reminder for women to practice healthy habits and take control of their health journey, including their needs around oral health!
Women’s health needs change throughout different stages of life—during puberty, menstruation, pregnancy, menopause, and when using birth control—primarily because of changing hormone levels. So how exactly are women’s oral health and hormones connected? A lot of it has to do with how hormones affect blood supply.
Read on to learn about how hormones affect women’s oral health and ways to protect your smile during key life changes.
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How are hormones and women’s oral health related?
Estrogen and progesterone, the two main female hormones, cause more blood to flow to your gums and can affect the way your body responds to toxins, like bacteria in the mouth.
According to the American Dental Association, this can lead to swelling, inflammation, and sensitivity, and means that everyday oral hygiene concerns like plaque and food particles have a greater chance of irritating the gums. During times when hormones fluctuate, gums might feel more swollen and tender, or bleed more easily when flossing or brushing.
While this might not seem like cause for concern, over time this can lead to bone loss in the jaw and, if left untreated, even tooth loss. That’s why keeping up with oral hygiene and regular dental care as part of an overall women’s health plan is essential at every stage in life — particularly during times where hormone levels change.
Puberty and Oral Health
During puberty, a large amount of progesterone and estrogen is produced in the body, sending extra blood flow to the gums. This can cause inflammation and make gums more prone to bleeding.
Puberty and increased hormone levels may also cause more bacteria to grow in the mouth, according to a study published in the Journal of Clinical Periodontology. Without regular visits to the dentist and proper oral hygiene, bacteria can form over the teeth and eat away at the enamel — making teeth more prone to cavities.
Some ways to reduce microbial growth and help with oral health care during puberty include:
- Brushing teeth twice a day (in the morning and at night)
- Using an antibacterial mouthwash
- Avoiding sugary foods and eating a well-balanced diet
- Using a tongue scraper
Menstruation and Oral Health
Some women don’t have any oral health concerns during menstruation; but for those that do, they may experience bright red or bleeding gums, canker sores, bad breath or swollen salivary glands a couple days before their period starts. This is often called menstruation gingivitis, and symptoms usually clear up on their own within a week or so.
If this issue is something you experience, it’s helpful to keep this in mind as you’re scheduling dental exams or cleaning so you can avoid potential sensitivity at your check-up. As always, if you have any type of prolonged bleeding, swollen gums, or other health issues, it’s important to talk to your dentist or health care provider.
Birth Control and Oral Health
Certain kinds of birth control pills containing progesterone, particularly those with a higher concentration, can also affect overall women’s health and oral health.
Like changes occurring with their menstrual cycles, birth control pills can cause gingivitis and symptoms like swollen, bleeding gums and sensitivity. Because of this, women on birth control can be at a greater risk of dry sockets after a dental procedure (for example, getting a tooth pulled), where a blood clot doesn’t form properly or becomes dislodged from your gums. According to a study in the Journal of the American Dental Association, those who use oral contraceptives are almost 2x as likely to have a dry socket compared to women who don’t.
If left untreated, this can lead to infection and other health complications. Therefore, it’s important to let your dentist know of all medications you take, including birth control, before any type of procedure.
Birth control with synthetic estrogens may also decrease levels of natural estrogen, which has been linked to oral health disorders relating to the temporomandibular joint (TMJ). Temporomandibular disorders may mean problems with the jaw and the surrounding muscles that control it. In some individuals, it may also cause inflammation that leads to osteoarthritis of the joint.
Pregnancy and Oral Health
Changes in hormone levels during pregnancy also increase the risk of developing oral health issues like gingivitis, which occurs more often between the second and eighth month of pregnancy. The CDC suggests that between 60 and 75% of pregnant women end up developing gingivitis. If left untreated, this early stage of periodontal disease can lead to infection and bone loss around the gums. It’s also been linked to preterm birth, low birth weight, and other health issues.
Hormonal fluctuations during pregnancy can also cause some women to develop a sweet tooth or other changes in eating habits, increasing risk of cavities. Cavity risk also increases because of morning sickness, as stomach acid in the mouth can weaken tooth enamel. It’s especially important to practice good oral hygiene during pregnancy and make dental care a top priority—after all, you’re brushing for two!