What Is Oral Health

Most people think of oral health as just the state of your teeth, but it’s really much more. Oral health affects how you look and how you feel about yourself. You use your mouth to talk, to eat, to express your emotions, and for many other purposes that are vital to your life. But more than that, the health of your mouth affects the health of your whole body. Problems in your mouth can affect your heart, your brain, and your lungs, and other organs. If you are pregnant, your oral health could even affect your unborn child.

Oral health is the condition of your mouth, including: 

  • Your teeth
  • Your gums
  • Your tongue
  • Your throat
  • Your lips
  • Your jaws
  • Your salivary glands
  • Many other parts

Likewise, the heath of your body shows itself in the state of your mouth. By examining your mouth, your doctor can pick up vital clues about other health problems, including:

  • Infections
  • Vitamin deficiencies
  • Diabetes
  • Bone disease
  • Some forms of cancer

Modern medicine has made great strides in improving oral health in the United States. For instance, Baby Boomers will be the first generation in which most people keep their own teeth for their lifetime. But much work still needs to be done. More than two out of every five Americans suffer from untreated tooth decay. And most adults have at least some gum disease. During middle age, 1 in 7 Americans suffer from severe gum disease, which may threaten the bones underlying the teeth. 

Read on to find out more about oral health and what you can do to take better care of your mouth.

What Causes Oral Health

As we mentioned above, many factors can affect your mouth. These include:

  • Illnesses such as osteoporosis, diabetes, and HIV infection.
  • Your overall health
  • Some medicines you might take, including painkillers, diuretics, and sinus medicines
  • Taking poor care of your own mouth
  • Unhealthy eating habits
  • Smoking or chewing tobacco may lead to oral cancers

Risk Factors For Oral Health

A number of factors can raise or lower your odds of oral health problems. For instance: 

  • Large amounts of sugar can increase the risk of cavities in your teeth
  • Poor oral hygiene raises your risk of cavities and gum disease
  • Smoking or chewing tobacco can cause gum disease or cancer of the mouth
  • Heavy drinking also increases your risk of mouth cancer
  • Being pregnant puts you at risk of gum disease
  • HIV can cause sores or other problems in your mouth
  • Other illnesses, such as osteoporosis and gastroesophageal reflux disease, can also harm your teeth and other parts of your mouth and throat

In children, the greatest risk factor for poor oral health is a mother who has oral health problems or doesn’t have access to oral health care. Other risk factors in children include: 

  • Frequent snacking, including drinking from a bottle or sippy cup
  • Medical conditions, including dry mouth, seizures, attention deficit disorder, and overcrowding of the teeth

Factors that can protect oral health in children and adults include:

  • Good oral hygiene
  • Fluoridated water or toothpaste, or fluoride treatments
  • Regular dental care
  • Healthy eating habits

Poor oral health is also a risk factor for other health problems. Losing teeth in early adulthood may increase your risk of Alzheimer’s disease, and problems with your gums put you at risk for:

  • Endocarditis (an infection of the lining inside your heart)
  • Other heart diseases
  • Clogged arteries and stroke
  • Premature birth and low birth weight, if you are pregnant

Diagnosing Oral Health

The best time to start caring for your mouth is before problems develop. When problems do develop, an early diagnosis can help catch problems before they get serious.

At the start of a typical dental checkup, a dental hygienist will:

  • Clean your teeth
  • Evaluate your oral health
  • (Possibly) take x-rays of your teeth
  • Examine your teeth and gums
  • Check your mouth for signs of other health problems
  • Look over the x-rays, if there are any

Once in a while, you should also go in for a comprehensive examination. This includes the first time you visit a new dentist and from time to time thereafter. How often you need a comprehensive evaluation may vary from patient to patient. Your dentist should tell you when you are due for a comprehensive exam.

When you go for a comprehensive evaluation, bring a list of all the medicines you are taking, as some may cause dry mouth or other side effects, and other medications you take may have drug interactions with other medicines your dentist may want to prescribe. Also tell your dentist about anything unusual you may have noticed about your mouth, such as:

  • Lumps or sores inside your mouth
  • Sensitive teeth
  • Toothache or any new cavities you think you have

Also tell your dentist about any other health issues or concerns you have. A full medical profile will help your dentist recognize problems that might otherwise be hard to spot. 

During a comprehensive exam, your dentist will check out: 

  • Your head and neck, including:
    • Your jaw
    • Your salivary glands
    • Lymph nodes in your neck
    • Anything unusual or troubling about your mouth or face
  • Your lips, tongue, and other soft tissue
  • The alignment of your upper and lower jaws
  • Your teeth, including new dental x-rays

After the examination, your dentist will tell you about any problems he or she noticed, and what the next steps are to deal with these problems.

Symptoms of Oral Health

There are many diseases that can affect your mouth, and each has its own symptoms.

Symptoms of tooth decay (cavities) include:

  • Toothache
  • Sensitivity in the tooth
  • Pain when you bite down, or when you eat or drink something that is hot, cold, or sweet
  • Holes in your teeth
  • Staining on your teeth

Other tooth problems may cause loose or worn-down teeth. 

Symptoms of gum disease include:

  • Bleeding gums
  • Red, swollen, or tender gums
  • Loose or sensitive teeth
  • Pain when you chew
  • A receding gum line
  • Bad breath, also known as halitosis, that won’t go away

Bad breath may also be a symptom of other problems, including cavities, dry mouth, or problems with your nose or sinuses. 

Dry mouth may be a symptom of several conditions, including:

  • Sjogren’s syndrome
  • Salivary gland disease
  • Diabetes
  • Nerve damage
  • A side effect of medicine, radiation, or chemotherapy

Symptoms caused by dry mouth include:

  • Bad breath
  • A dry, sticky, or burning feeling in your mouth
  • Trouble chewing or swallowing
  • Difficulty speaking
  • Cracked lips
  • A dry, rough tongue, or a poor sense of taste
  • Sores or infections in the mouth
  • Exaggerated tooth decay

Symptoms of thrush (a yeast infection of the mouth and throat) include:

  • Plaques or white patches in the mouth
  • Redness or soreness
  • Trouble swallowing
  • Cracking in the corners of your mouth

Cold sores on or near the mouth are symptoms of herpes simplex infection.

Symptoms of oral cancer may include:

  • Red, white, or red-and-white patches in or on your mouth
  • A sore in or on your mouth that doesn’t go away
  • Loose teeth
  • Bleeding in your mouth
  • Trouble swallowing
  • Earache
  • A lump on your neck
  • Dentures that no longer fit

Other diseases of the mouth may have different symptoms, and some overall health problems may cause symptoms in your mouth. If you feel like something is different or wrong inside your mouth, talk with your dentist.


Diseases of the mouth range from some that are easy to manage or even cure to others that can be much more serious.

Cavities are usually a minor nuisance if they are caught early. Untreated cavities may cause larger problems, such as:

  • Widespread tooth decay
  • Infection
  • Losing teeth

Gingivitis, or bleeding gums, can usually be cured. Periodontitis (a deeper infection in your gums) may need long-term management, even after treatment. Still, periodontitis is usually controllable if you treat it before it damages the bones where your teeth take root, and you continue to take good care of your teeth. 

Survival with oral cancer depends on how far the disease has spread. If cancer of the tongue or the base of the mouth is found and treated early, four out of five patients will still be alive 5 years after diagnosis. Five-year survival is as high as 93% for cancer of the lip. But once it spreads, oral cancer can become much more deadly, with 5-year survival ranging from 20% to 63% depending where the cancer started and how far it has spread. For cancers starting in other part of the mouth, the statistics are not as precise, but 5-year survival averages around 60% to 66%

Living With Oral Health

The health of your mouth is deeply intertwined with your overall health. Taking care of your mouth helps protect your whole body, while healthy living and staying active help preserve your oral health. 

To take good care of your mouth, floss daily, brush your teeth twice a day, and schedule regular dental visits. Some other things you can do to improve your oral health are:

  • Eat properly. Vitamin shortages or too much sugar can affect the state of your mouth.
  • Stay active. Regular exercise protects you from gum disease and helps you keep more of your teeth as you age.
  • Find ways to relax. Too much stress can lead to tooth grinding, dry mouth, and jaw disorders.
  • Don’t smoke. Smoking damages your teeth and gums, and can lead to cancer in your mouth or throughout your body.
  • Stay away from drugs. Recreational drug use can cause lost teeth, dry mouth, and unhealthy eating habits.


According to the American Dental Association, everyone should visit a dentist regularly to screen for tooth and gum disease and other oral health problems. Since different people have different health needs, you should talk with your dentist about how often you should go. Generally, most people should go to the dentist at least once a year, and you should go more often if: 

  • You smoke
  • You have diabetes
  • You have a genetic predisposition to oral health problems

During a routine checkup, your dentist checks out the health of your teeth and gums and looks for oral cancer and other diseases. At a comprehensive dental examination, your dentist will do all of this and more, and thoroughly examine your mouth, head, and neck.


Taking care of your mouth should be part of your everyday routine. To give your mouth the best care: 

  • Brush your teeth at least twice a day
  • Floss between your teeth every day
  • Practice healthy eating habits–avoid frequent snacks or excess sugar
  • Replace your toothbrush regularly–every 3 to 4 months, at least
  • Schedule routine dental checkups
  • Call your dentist if you notice anything wrong with your mouth

For more steps you can take to protect your oral health, visit the Care Guide on this page.

There are also measures your dentist can take, such as:

  • Fluoride treatments
  • Professional tooth cleaning
  • Preventive orthodontics to prevent larger problems later
  • Surgery to remove badly aligned wisdom teeth before they cause problems.

Common Treatment

For cavities, the primary treatment is usually filling the cavity. Modern fillings are made of resins, porcelain, or a combination of different materials. Other possible treatments for cavities include:

  • Fluoride treatment, if tooth decay is caught early. Fluoride treatment before the enamel erodes all the way through may restore your tooth and save you from needing a filling.
  • A crown, which is a custom-fitted covering that replaces the biting surface of your tooth.
  • A root canal, if the cavity goes deep into the center of your tooth.
  • Extraction, if the tooth is so far gone that it has to be removed.

While you are undergoing a filling or other dental work, your dentist may give you lidocaine (Xylocaine) to numb the area. If dental work makes you nervous, your dentist may give you procain (Novocain) or another anesthetic to relax you or make you unconscious for the procedure. 

After dental work, your dentist may give you:

  • Analgesics, such as ibuprofen (Motrin, Nuprin) or acetaminophen (Tylenol) to control pain
  • Corticosteroids such as hydrocortisone (Orabase) or triamcinolone (Oracort, Oralone)
  • Narcotics such as hydrocodone (Vicodin) if your dentist thinks you will need serious pain relief

Gum disease treatments depend on how severe the disease is. The primary treatment for gum disease is a pair of procedures, usually done together:

  • Scaling is scraping the tartar off of your teeth, both above the gum line where you can see it and below the gum line where it’s usually hidden under your gums.
  • Root planing smoothes out the roots of your teeth, to make it harder for bacteria to damage your gums.

If you have severe gum disease, you may also need more serious surgical treatments. 

Your dentist may also prescribe:

  • Antimicrobial mouth rinse to control bacteria
  • Antibiotic gel, antimicrobial microspheres, or an antiseptic chip placed under the gum line after root planing to slowly release medicine over time
  • An enzyme suppressant to keep your mouth’s digestive enzymes from damaging your gums
  • Antibiotics to stop an infection

Other oral health problems have different treatments.

Complementary and Alternative Treatment

Approach alternative dentistry with caution, if at all. Avoid alternative health practitioners who tell you to remove your fillings, or not to use fluoride treatments. Modern dentistry has greatly improved the oral health and the overall health of Americans, and some alternative dental procedures have caused measurable harm to real people.

That said, there are some complementary health treatments that may offer benefit when used together with good dental care. Alternative treatments that are sometimes used in dentistry include:

  • Acupuncture, to help control pain, anxiety, jaw clenching, and other problems
  • Ayurvedic treatments to promote overall oral health
  • Herbal treatments
  • Homeopathic medicine
  • Essential oils

Always tell your dentist about any treatments you plan to use, including alternative and complementary treatments.

Care Guide

The main thing you can do to care for your mouth is to practice good oral hygiene. This means: 

  • Brush your teeth at least twice a day
  • Floss every day
  • Limit snacks and sugars
  • Replace your toothbrush every 3 to 4 months
  • Visit your dentist regularly

For further protection, you can take these steps: 

  • Use a fluoride toothpaste, and drink fluoridated water
  • Don’t smoke
  • Drink in moderation, if at all
  • Eat a balanced diet
  • If you have diabetes, keep your blood sugar under control
  • If a medicine causes dry mouth, ask your doctor if another treatment would work as well

When To Contact A Doctor

You should have regular dental checkups, probably once a year or more. Ask your dentist about your oral health needs and what schedule would work best for you.

Questions For Your Doctor

If you don’t have a dentist already, you can ask your doctor for a referral, or you can look for a dentist near you; or at your health or dental insurance provider’s web site or the American Dental Association’s

Questions For A Doctor

When you go to see your dentist, it’s good to have a list of the questions you’d like to have answered. Take a moment to write down some of the things you want to know. Your questions for your dentist might include some of these:

  • Do I have any cavities?
  • Do you see any other problems?
  • What steps can I take at home to protect my mouth?
  • Is there anything I should watch out for in particular?
  • How soon should I schedule my next appointment?
  • Is there anything else I should know about my oral health?


Other useful resources to help you learn about ORAL HEALTH can be found at:

MouthHealthy from the American Dental Association

Oral health information from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

For Parents

National Maternal & Child Oral Health Resource Center from Georgetown University

American Pediatric Dentists

Oral Cancer Resources


The latest for the greatest!

Get up-to-the-moment health + wellness info
  right to your inbox, plus exclusive offers!