Most patients think of a dentist as someone who can help them maintain a beautiful smile or fill cavities but don’t necessarily think of those regular dental visits as a potentially life-saving activity.
As the care provider who specializes in disease and abnormalities of the mouth, though, your dentist could be your first line of defense for a variety of diseases, from relatively mild irritations to more significant conditions such as oral cancer.
“As dentists, our field is to know what we can about the mouth and all the surrounding tissues in the lips, jaw, head and neck,” said Bryan Trump, D.D.S., an assistant professor and oral and maxillofacial pathologist at the University of Utah School of Dentistry.
He recalls a recent patient who was dealing with severe pain, burning, soreness and blistering in her gums. Despite visits to several other physicians, no one was able to diagnose the underlying cause of the pain in her mouth. That’s when she was referred to his clinic.
“I looked in her mouth and saw very raw, bleeding, peeling gums, and that’s a common sign for certain autoimmune diseases,” said Trump. In this case, her immune system was attacking her epithelium (the outermost layer of tissue lining the mouth) and weakening that tissue, causing it to peel off.
For some patients, the diseases that affect the oral cavity are completely asymptomatic, meaning that you might not even know you have a problem because there is no pain and no visible change. Another one of Trump’s patients recently underwent significant surgery to remove a cyst that was growing in his jaw; the patient admitted that he had not seen a dentist for about four years and only noticed there was a problem when one of his teeth became loose.
“Had that patient been in for regular checkups, the cyst would probably have been seen sooner, teeth could potentially have been saved and it would have been a simpler procedure,” Trump said.
Your mouth is also a pretty good indicator of overall health, so detecting periodontal (gum) disease and keeping inflammation under control can help prevent problems with chronic health conditions such as diabetes and heart disease, both of which have been linked to oral health.
The easiest way to spot these risks is through an oral exam where your dentist will look for color changes inside the mouth, such as white, red, black, blue and yellow, or the presence of abnormalities such as lumps and bumps. If a dentist notices these things, he or she might ask about other symptoms, such as bleeding gums, pain, tenderness or dry mouth that could help in diagnosing the underlying cause.
“The purpose behind regular dental checkups is to be able to not only keep everything clean and healthy but also to see if the person is taking care of their oral hygiene effectively or if modifications need to be made,” said Trump. “It is an essential step in the overall health of the body.”
Trump has also seen a case where a dentist was able to diagnose lymphoma after noticing a color change in the mouth of a patient. For many patients, this timely detection can help catch a more serious condition before it progresses and may even diagnose a potentially deadly disease such as oral cancer while it’s still in earlier and more treatable stages.
As a proportion of total cancers, oral cancer will only account for about 2.9 percent of all newly diagnosed cases in 2016, according to estimates from the American Cancer Society, but that still means more than 48,000 people will be diagnosed this year. Oral cancer can be particularly devastating because many people do not catch it until it reaches later stages when treatment is more difficult and outcomes are more uncertain.
"The purpose behind regular dental checkups is to be able to not only keep everything clean and healthy but also to see if the person is taking care of their oral hygiene effectively or if modifications need to be made. It is an essential step in the overall health of the body.”
That’s where your dental care provider comes in. Dentists are specially trained to notice even the subtlest change in your mouth that could indicate a problem, and determine whether it is something that requires immediate action, such as a biopsy, or something that should be monitored over time.
People who smoke, chew tobacco or drink alcohol are at the highest risk of developing oral cancer, but it can also occur as a result of the human papillomavirus (HPV) and even in individuals with no apparent risk factors, which is why it’s so important for everyone to be aware of the signs of the disease.
Patients often know their bodies best, so simply standing in front of a mirror and looking in your mouth from time to time can help you find things you might otherwise have missed, Trump said. If you do notice changes, even if they don’t seem like a big deal, it’s still worth bringing up at your next dental visit.
It’s also important to schedule those regular checkups with your dentist.
“My personal philosophy is that each person should have a dental home—a dentist they trust,” said Trump. “Having a single set of eyes and a good clinician that has a long history of seeing you and your mouth, they are better able to detect what is abnormal and what has changed.”
Whether you’re due for a six-month checkup or it’s been longer than you care to admit, consider seeing your dentist soon. It just might save your life.
Did you know that the University of Utah School of Dentistry runs a Student Dental Clinic that offers comprehensive dental care for a greatly reduced rate? Call 801-587-6453 to schedule an appointment. University Hospital also offers a dental clinic staffed by residents (call 801-581-2220).