​Smita Mehra outlines how tobacco affects oral health and offers tips on protecting teeth.

May 31 is ‘World No Tobacco Day’, an annual event organised by the World Health Organisation, which aims to inform the public of the dangers of smoking and using tobacco products.

Over the past few months, smoking and its dangers, particularly among the younger generations, have become a widely debated topic after the UK government pledged to eradicate smoking as part of a new bill in April.

But while many of us are aware of the impacts of smoking on our health, many may not be aware of how it affects our gums and teeth as well.

When we talk about the impact of smoking on our health, often, the dangers tend to focus on the impact on the lungs, heart, and even skin. Yet what smokers and vapers often fail to recognise is that the associated risks of such habits start in their mouths.

Tobacco products - no matter how they are ingested - can have a variety of detrimental and irreversible effects on oral health.

1. Impact your teeth and gums

First and foremost, tobacco products containing nicotine, like cigarettes and vapes, can have a detrimental effect on the teeth and gums that can leave your mouth in poor shape. Tobacco products are filled with toxic chemicals that seep into your gums, traumatising and severely affecting the gums and even the dental bone in which your teeth sit.

This leaves the mouth more vulnerable to infection, which is often one of the main contributors to gum disease.

Plaque buildup from tobacco can also turn into tartar, which can cause your gums to inflame and recede, exposing the roots of your teeth. Leading to chronic problems like tooth and bone loss. This can lead to expensive solutions to replace missing teeth, like implants, bridges or dentures. Nothing is as good as keeping your own natural teeth and gums healthy.

2. Oral cancer risk

Most people are aware that smoking or using tobacco products increases your chances of lung cancer. But it can also put you at a higher risk of mouth/oral cancer. In fact, approximately 25 per cent of oral cancers in the UK are linked to smoking.

When you smoke or use vapes, you risk severely damaging not only your heart and lungs but also your mouth, tongue, and lips. This is because the harmful chemicals in tobacco products damage the cells in the mouth.

Oral cancer can have many dangerous consequences to more than your mouth and teeth, including disfigurement, loss of teeth, and even death.

3. Tooth decay

The severe effect nicotine can have on tooth decay is perhaps something that isn’t as well known. When you smoke, the chemicals in tobacco mix with your saliva, causing its PH levels to drop and become less effective at neutralising acids.

This creates the perfect environment for tooth decay, as the bacteria in your mouth can more easily damage the enamel on your teeth. Tooth decay is extremely serious, as it can lead to problems such as cavities, tooth loss, and future health problems.

4. Recovery from surgery

Though we all know that smoking and the harmful ingredients in tobacco products can impact our health, what some people may not know is that it can also have an impact on recovery from oral surgery.

Toxic chemicals in tobacco products can reduce blood flow to the gums, making it much harder for your mouth to recover after dental surgery fully.

It can also lead to implant failure because the titanium post cannot fuse with the bone properly, causing post-surgery problems like infections and longer recovery times. Implants need healthy bones to remain sturdy and successful.

5. Bad breath

One of the most obvious ways smoking and tobacco products impact your oral health is by causing bad breath (halitosis).

While vapes have tried to combat this issue by masking the smell with fruity or menthol flavours, tobacco inherently changes the chemistry in your mouth, leading to the build-up of sulphur, which has a consistently bad smell.

6. Reduces your mouth's natural defences

Tobacco products harm oral health by breaking down the mouth's natural defences.

When you smoke or vape, it slows down saliva production. Salvia is one of your mouth's main shields against bacteria from food and drink. Without it, you are much more vulnerable to infection and gum disease.

7. Dry mouth and tooth sensitivity

Smoking can cause dry mouth or increased tooth sensitivity. This is because tobacco products cause your salivary glands not to produce enough saliva.

Though this might not seem serious, when your mouth is dry, it can’t wash away bacteria properly, making you more prone to decay and cavities. Without saliva production, your mouth can’t break down acids as well, making your teeth much more sensitive.

How to quit tobacco products

The good news is, if you quit smoking or stop using tobacco products this ‘World No Tobacco Day’, you can increase your chances of looking after your oral health. There are plenty of ways to do this, such as:

  • Using gum lozenges or patches to replace nicotine.
  • Join a group that can offer advice and support.
  • There are plenty of apps, websites, and forums to help you quit and track progress.
  • Dental professionals can provide patients with individual advice to fit specific needs.