How Healthy is your Smile?

by Kathryn Cook
January 2011
Oral health is often taken for granted, but is an essential part in our everyday lives. Good oral health enhances our ability to speak, smile, eat and enjoy our lives with comfort and confidence. In addition, as new research continues to show, healthy teeth and gums play a vital role in maintaining our bodies overall health. Practicing good oral hygiene, including daily brushing and flossing at home, is the first step toward maintaining a healthy mouth. Seeing a dental professional regularly is also an important investment in your oral and overall health. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Americans make about 500 million visits to the dentist each year. Most experts recommend a dental check-up every six months in order to prevent cavities, gum disease and other oral health problems. Dr. Stephanie Gray Hackney, a general dentist who has been practicing in Wilmington since 1996, agrees. "In general, we recommend coming in twice a year," she says. "However, we do have patients who need to be seen more frequently, depending on their rate of dental caries." Commonly known as a cavity, dental caries localized destruction of tooth tissue by microorganisms are caused by plaque a sticky film of bacteria that can accumulate and eventually cause damage to the hard enamel surfaces of teeth. A persons caries rate the rate at which they experience tooth decay can be influenced by a number of factors, including age, gender and ethnicity. "Some people get cavities more frequently than the average person," says Dr. Hackney, "so we want to see them more often to ensure their teeth are in good health." The Systemic Connection The same harmful bacteria that cause tooth decay, if left untreated, can lead to an even more severe oral health problem called periodontal disease. Also known as gum disease, periodontal disease is a serious bacterial infection of the gums and tissues supporting the teeth. These oral bacteria can enter the bloodstream through infected gums and travel to other major organs in the body, such as the heart and lungs, creating new infections. Dr. Phyllis B. Cook, a board-certified periodontist in Wilmington, stresses this connection between oral and overall health. "Systemically," she says, "if your gums are not healthy, the rest of your body is not healthy." A 2002 study in the Journal of Periodontology found that patients with severe periodontal disease had approximately four times more harmful bacterial products in their blood than those with moderate or no periodontal disease. Other recent studies have linked oral infections to higher risks of cardiovascular disease, respiratory disease, diabetes, stroke, heart attack and even adverse pregnancy outcomes. Common signs of periodontal disease include persistent bad breath, loose or separating teeth and gums that are red, swollen or bleed easily. "Ive heard people say, Well, my gums always bleed when I brush or floss," says Dr. Cook. "But they"re not supposed to. Just imagine if you washed your arm and it started to bleed. Would you not immediately think something was wrong?" Although some signs of gum disease are more obvious, many people do not experience any symptoms or pain. In fact, the American Academy of Periodontology estimates that approximately 75 percent of adults in the United States have the disease in some form, but the majority of them don't know they have it. The first stage and most common indicator of periodontal disease is gingivitis. Though gingivitis is a very mild form of the disease, its important to see a dental professional for proper treatment. "Prevention is absolutely number one," says Dr. Cook. "But if you do have gum disease, address it as soon as possible. Just like with any disease, if you treat it early, you save money in the long run and prevent other health problems down the road." Cosmetic Options Once good oral health and hygiene is achieved and maintained, there are a variety of options available to achieve an even better smile. "If you are going to invest in anything for yourself, your mouth is where you should start," says Dr. Hackney. Her office offers everything from full veneers to more basic teeth whitening and contouring, which is a gentle shaping and smoothing of the teeth. "It is a quick and easy procedure that gives your smile a more youthful appearance in only five or ten minutes," she says. For people who are unhappy with the amount of gum tissue visible around their teeth, Dr. Cook has seen great results with a cosmetic procedure called crown lengthening. During this form of periodontal plastic surgery, Dr. Cook reshapes excess gum and bone tissue to expose more of the natural tooth, resulting in a more beautiful and less "gummy" smile. Regardless of what cosmetic option you choose, its important to consider what your goals are for your mouth and to discuss these goals, along with any questions or concerns, with a licensed and experienced dental professional. If you did not already feel compelled to take good care of your mouth, teeth and gums, its important to make it a goal for you and your family in 2011. Encouraging your children to take good care of their teeth and bringing them in for routine dental examines is a healthy habit that, when started young, will stay with them throughout their lifetime. In addition, the systemic relationship between your oral and overall health provides even more incentive to practice proper dental hygiene daily and to see a dental professional regularly. Not only will you be investing in your oral health now, but you will also be making an investment into your body's overall health for the future. Please call Dr Phyllis Cook at 910-256-8486 to schedule an appointment. www.phylliscook.com Article is from the Wrightsville Beach Magazine