The word "oral" refers to the mouth, which includes your teeth, gums, jawbone, and supporting tissues. Taking good care of your oral health can prevent disease in your mouth. Oral health can affect the health of your entire body. Good oral health does not just mean you have pretty teeth. Your whole mouth needs care to be in good health.
The most common oral health problems are cavities and gum disease.
We are all at risk of tooth decay, or cavities. (Cavities look like chalky white and/or brown holes on your teeth). Bacteria (germs) that naturally live in our mouths use sugar in food to make acids. Over time, the acids destroy the outside layer of your teeth. Then cavities and other tooth harm occur.
Gum diseases are infections caused by bacteria, along with mucus and other particles that form a sticky plaque on your teeth. Plaque that is left on teeth hardens and forms tartar. Gingivitis (jin-juh-VEYE-tuhss) is a mild form of gum disease. It causes red, swollen gums. It can also make the gums bleed easily. Gingivitis can be caused by plaque buildup. And the longer plaque and tartar stay on teeth, the more harm they do. Most gingivitis can be treated with daily brushing and flossing and regular cleanings at the dentist's office. This form of gum disease does not lead to loss of bone or tissue around the teeth. But if it is not treated, it can advance to periodontitis (pair-ee-oh-don-TEYE-tuhss). Then the gums pull away from the teeth and form infected "pockets." You may also lose supporting bone. If you have periodontitis, see your dentist for treatment. Otherwise your teeth may loosen over time and need to be removed.
Your risk of gum disease is higher if you:
Normal, healthy gums: Healthy gums and bone anchor teeth firmly in place.
Periodontitis: Plaque left on teeth hardens into tartar. As plaque and tartar build up, the gums pull away from the teeth and pockets form between the teeth and gums. Bone supporting the teeth may get infected and start to weaken.
Advanced periodontitis: The gums recede further, destroying more bone and the ligament around the tooth. Teeth may become loose and need to be removed.
Bad breath. Bad breath is also called halitosis (hal-lih-TOH-suhss). Bad-smelling breath can be caused by several things, including:
Practicing good oral hygiene and avoiding tobacco and some foods often helps people with bad-smelling breath. You may want to try using a tongue scraper to clean food from your tongue. You could also just brush your tongue with your toothbrush. But if doing so doesn't seem to help or if you always need mouthwash to hide bad breath, talk to your dentist.
Burning mouth. People with this condition describe a burning feeling in the mouth or tongue. It is most common in postmenopausal women. The cause is unknown, but might be linked to:
Talk to your doctor or dentist if you have burning mouth. Treatment depends on the cause — if it can be determined — and might include adjusting your dentures, vitamin supplements, or pain or other medicines.
Canker sores. These sores are small ulcers inside the mouth. They have a white or gray base and a red border. Women are more likely than men to have canker sores that recur. The cause of canker sores is unknown. Risk factors include:
Canker sores most often heal on their own in one to three weeks. See your dentist if you get a large sore (larger than a half inch, or about the size of a dime). You may need medicine to treat it.
To help with pain:
No proven way exists to prevent canker sores. If you get them often, talk with your dentist.
Cold sores. These small, painful sores are caused by herpes simplex virus type 1. Once you are exposed to the virus, it can hide in your body for years. Things that trigger the virus and lead to cold sores include:
Cold sores can spread from person to person. They most often form on the lips and sometimes under the nose or chin. The sores heal in about 7 to 10 days without scarring. You can buy over-the-counter drugs to put on cold sores to help relieve pain. If you get cold sores a lot, talk with your doctor or dentist about a prescription for an antiviral drug. These drugs can help reduce healing time and the number of new sores.
Dry mouth. Dry mouth is also called xerostomia (ZEER-oh-STOM-mee-uh). This problem happens when you don't have enough saliva, or spit, in your mouth. Some reasons why people get dry mouth include:
Dry mouth may make it hard to eat, swallow, taste, and speak. If left untreated, it can lead to cavities. This is because saliva helps break down bits of food and helps stop acid from forming plaque on your teeth. Treatment of dry mouth depends on the cause and can range from medicines to diet changes. To lessen the dryness, use artificial saliva, suck on sugarless candy, do not smoke, do not drink alcohol, and use a humidifier. Tell your doctor if you have dry mouth.
Oral cancer. This cancer can affect any part of the mouth and part of the throat. If you smoke or chew tobacco, you are at higher risk. Excessive alcohol use along with smoking raises your risk even more. However, nonsmokers can also develop oral cancer. To help protect yourself from lip cancer, use a lip balm with sunscreen (exposure to the sun can cause lip cancer).
Oral cancer most often occurs after age 40. It isn't always painful, so it may go undetected until the late stages. Ask your doctor to check for signs of oral cancer during your regular checkup. Oral cancer often starts as a tiny white or red spot or sore anywhere in the mouth. Other signs include:
Thrush. Thrush is also called oral candidiasis (CAN-dih-dye-uh-sis). These fungal infections appear as red, yellow, or white lesions, flat or slightly raised, in the mouth or throat. It can look like cottage cheese. This fungus lives naturally in your mouth. Your risk of getting thrush increases if:
Treatment includes antifungal mouthwash or lozenges. If the infection spreads or your immune system is weak, you may need antifungal medicine.
Thrush is common among:
The health of your mouth can be a sign of your body's health. Mouth problems are not just cavities, toothaches, and crooked or stained teeth. Many diseases, such as diabetes, heart disease, HIV, cancer, and some eating disorders are linked with oral health problems. Regular dental exams help you maintain good oral health and avoid related health problems.
Cancer. If you are being treated for cancer, you may develop sores or other problems with your mouth. Pay attention to your mouth each day, and remember to brush and floss gently. Call your doctor or nurse if you notice a mouth problem, or if an old problem gets worse. See also: I'm starting cancer treatment. How can I best take care of my mouth?
Diabetes. People with diabetes are at special risk for gum disease. Gum disease can lead to painful chewing and even tooth loss. Dry mouth, often a symptom of undetected diabetes, can cause soreness, ulcers, infections, and tooth decay. People with diabetes can also get thrush. Smoking makes these problems worse. By controlling your blood glucose, brushing and flossing every day, and visiting a dentist regularly, you can help prevent gum disease. If your diabetes is not under control, you are more likely to develop problems in your mouth.
Heart disease. Before some dental treatments, patients who have certain heart conditions or joint replacements may take antibiotics. These people may be at risk of getting an infection when bacteria that lives in the mouth goes into the bloodstream during treatment. Antibiotics lower this risk. Talk to your doctor or dentist if you are not sure whether you should take antibiotics before dental treatment.
HIV. Oral problems are common in people with HIV because of a weak immune system. These problems can make it hard to eat. If mouth pain or tenderness makes it hard to chew and swallow, or if you can't taste food like you used to, you may not eat enough. The most common mouth problems linked with HIV can be treated.
Nutrition problems. Sometimes people who are missing teeth have to limit their food choices because of chewing problems. This can lead to a lack of vitamins in the body. If you are missing teeth and have trouble chewing, check with your doctor to make sure you are eating the right foods.
Many people get nervous at the thought of visiting the dentist. Don'tlet your nerves stop you from having regular appointments, though. Waiting too long to take care of your teeth may make things worse. Here are a few tips to make your visit easier:
Everyone needs to take care of their oral health. But female hormones can lead to an increase in some problems, such as:
Taking good care of your teeth and gums can help you avoid or lessen oral health problems.
Yes! If you are pregnant, you have special oral health needs.
Before you become pregnant, it is best to have regular dental checkups. You want to keep your mouth in good health before your pregnancy.
Also, remember that what you eat affects the development of your unborn child — including teeth. Your baby's teeth begin to grow during the third and sixth months of pregnancy, so it is important that you eat a balanced diet that includes calcium, protein, phosphorous, and vitamins A, C, and D.
If you are pregnant:
You can do a lot! Below are some things you need to know about your baby's oral health.
Cancer treatment can cause side effects in your mouth. A dental checkup before treatment starts can help prevent painful mouth problems. Serious side effects in the mouth can delay, or even stop, cancer treatment. To fight cancer best, your cancer care team should include a dentist. A dentist will help protect your mouth, teeth, and jaw bones from damage caused by head and neck radiation and chemotherapy.
So many different kinds of toothpaste are available today. Some say they're made for whitening, others for reducing gingivitis and plaque, and others for sensitive teeth. Before choosing toothpaste for your family, know the basics.
There are three ways that you can whiten your teeth:
The first thing you should do before whitening your teeth is talk to your dentist. He or she will be able to help you decide the best option for you. Whiteners will not fix all kinds of stains. Also, if you have bonding or tooth-colored fillings, these will not be affected by whiteners and they may stand out if you whiten your teeth. Remember that a using a whitener does not make your mouth healthier.
This kind of whitening, called "chairside bleaching," is done in your dentist's office. It may require more than one office visit. Each visit may take from 30 minutes to one hour. During chairside bleaching, the dentist puts a whitener on the teeth and uses a special light to make the whitener work. Lasers are sometimes used during tooth whitening to make the whitening agent work better.
There are a few different products that can be used to whiten teeth at home. Some come from your dentist, and others can be bought over-the-counter. These contain peroxide(s), which bleach the tooth enamel. Most come in a gel and are placed in a mouth guard or tray that fits inside your mouth. They help many types of staining. Only the dentist-dispensed solutions have the American Dental Association (ADA) seal.
Other over-the-counter whitening products include whitening strips, paint-on products, gels, and trays. They have a low amount of peroxide. For better results, have a cleaning at the dentist before you use these products. These gels and trays do not have the ADA seal.
All toothpastes help remove surface stains through mild abrasives. "Whitening" toothpastes that have the ADA seal have special polishing agents or chemicals that remove even more stains. Unlike bleaches, these products do not change the actual color of teeth. They help surface stains only.
Products used to whiten teeth can make teeth more sensitive. They can also bother your gums. These side effects most often go away after you stop using the product.
1. Brush your teeth at least twice each day with fluoride toothpaste.
Aim for first thing in the morning and before going to bed. Once a day, use floss or an interdental cleaner to remove food your toothbrush missed. Make sure you:
2. Have a healthy lifestyle.
3. Get regular checkups.
4. Follow your dentist's advice.
Your dentist may suggest ways to keep your mouth healthy. He or she can teach you how to properly floss or brush. Follow any recommended steps or treatments to keep your mouth healthy.
5. If you have another health problem, think about how it may affect your oral health.
For instance, if you take medicines that give you a dry mouth, ask your doctor or nurse if there are other drugs you can use. Have an oral exam before starting cancer treatment. And if you have diabetes, practice good oral hygiene to prevent gum disease.
For more information about oral health, call the OWH Helpline at 800-994-9662 or contact the following organizations:
The Office on Women's Health is grateful for the additional reviews by:
All material contained on these pages are free of copyright restrictions and may be copied, reproduced, or duplicated without permission of the Office on Women’s Health in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Citation of the source is appreciated.
Page last updated: June 12, 2017.
Content last reviewed: July 16, 2012.