It is now going on two years that we have been living through a pandemic. During a great portion of that time, masks have been a part of the inconvenience of the problem. For essential workers, mask wearing has almost been constant. Now, with the new variants creating surges in infection rates, masks are again a necessity for many people. While they help reduce the risk of infection from airborne diseases like the coronavirus, masks can also create dental problems when they must be worn extensively.
Mask Mouth – A New Thing
Since mask wearing has become prevalent, dentists have noticed an increase in dental problems, even in patients who have good oral hygiene. These issues collectively have been labeled as a condition called “mask mouth.” According to some estimations, about 50% of all dental patients currently being treated for dental issues have some signs of mask mouth. For many of these patients, their oral health problems are not because of poor oral hygiene, but rather directly related to wearing a mask for long periods of time on a regular basis.
Mask mouth occurs as a result of the changes in your breathing behaviors. Most people wearing masks tend to breathe more thorough the mouth rather than the nose. This causes dry mouth. Usually, continuous secretions of saliva constantly bathe the mouth in moisture. Harmful bacteria in the mouth are washed away as a result. Saliva creates a protective barrier in the mouth, and it has antimicrobial components like hydrogen peroxide, lactoferrin and lysozymes to help defend against harmful bacteria.
Breathing through the mouth changes the oral environment. Harmful bacteria are able to proliferate and this creates an opportunity for diseases to develop. Also, as saliva has an important role in preventing viruses from entering directly into the body, when it is not available, viruses have more of a chance to impact health.
How Dry Mouth Affects Oral Health
Because of the changes that happen when saliva production is reduced due to breathing through the mouth, certain symptoms develop. These include:
- Increase in tooth decay – The amount of saliva is no longer available at a sufficient volume to maintain a healthy oral environment. Harmful bacteria feed on the sugar and food particles left behind. These would normally be washed away, but with the reduction of moisture, the bacteria are able to accumulate faster and more abundantly.
- Swollen gums – Inflammation in the gums may occur as the body attempts to fight off the increase of bad bacteria. The gums may bleed as gingivitis begins to develop. If it is not treated, it can lead to a more serious form of gum disease called periodontitis. This severe form of gum disease not only destroys gum tissue, but also can lead to bone loss and eventual tooth loss.
- Halitosis – Bad breath is caused by certain types of harmful bacteria. When saliva is reduced, these bacteria accumulate. Some individuals may even notice a change in their breath after wearing a mask for a long period of time.
Dry Mouth and Dental Implants
Individuals with dental implants need to be aware of the problems caused by dry mouth. Although dental implants have a very high success rate and they cannot decay like teeth, the gums around your dental implants can be adversely affected by dry mouth and cause problems for the implants.
Harmful bacteria living in the mouth can proliferate when the oral environment is dry and cause a condition known as peri-implant mucositis. This inflammatory problem develops when plaque buildup occurs at the implant site. Toxins produced by the bacteria irritate the surrounding gum tissue. If not treated, it can develop into a more severe form known as peri-implantitis. Although this condition is rare, it can happen when the soft tissue around the dental implant becomes inflamed and infected. If not treated, this condition can cause failure of the implant.
Normally, implants do not require any special treatment other than continued good oral hygiene. Wearing a mask for extended periods of time could affect the health of your implants if you are constantly experiencing dry mouth. Taking steps to keep moisture in your mouth will help alleviate the problems mask mouth can cause.
Mask Mouth and Children
Many school children are required to wear masks during school hours. Teachers have noticed an increase in bad breath among children. This happens to be one of the symptoms of mask mouth. If you have younger elementary age children, you may want to check their mouths from time to time to see if there are any problems developing.
Many school districts have requirements that new and returning students have health and dental examinations within the first few weeks of returning to school. This would be a good time to ensure that your child is starting the school year off on a positive note, hopefully, without dental problems. The dental exam is especially important if your child has had to wear a mask often.
Prevention of Mask Mouth
The steps you take to protect you and your family from mask mouth are more or less the same things you would do to maintain your oral health under normal conditions, with the addition of taking special care to keep your mouth hydrated. The dental problems caused by wearing a mask for hours at a time every day can be minimized or eliminated by taking these simple steps.
- Stay hydrated – Now more than ever, it is time to drink plenty of fluids and keep your body and your mouth in particular hydrated. Whenever possible, drink water or other non-dehydrating and low sugar beverages. Keep in mind that alcoholic drinks and those with caffeine tend to be dehydrating.
- Keep your mouth fresh between cleanings – It is important to brush and floss at least twice a day and especially after eating, whenever possible. Between these cleanings, you can take other steps to keep your mouth fresh. These include rinsing your mouth with mouthwash and/or chewing sugar-free gum. Sucking on low- or no-sugar candy will also help stimulate the saliva glands and keep your mouth moisturized. Do not use mouthwash to substitute for properly cleaning your teeth, however.
- Wear clean masks – If you are wearing disposable masks, be sure to throw the used ones away rather than use them over and over. If you are using cloth masks, be sure to use once and clean after using. What people do not often think about is that bacteria build up on the inside of the masks as you breathe out.
- Monitor your teeth and gums – Check your teeth and gums from time to time to make sure no problems are developing. If you have young children who need to wear masks during the school day, monitor their dental health as well. If you think you see something that looks unusual or like it could develop into an issue, make an appointment with your dentist for an examination.
Health guidelines recommend that people wear masks while the coronavirus remains a serious problem. With proper care and attention, wearing a mask does not need to compromise your oral health, even if you need to wear one for hours at a time on a daily basis.
The dentists at Aesthetic & Implant Dentistry of Atlanta will help keep your smile healthy and looking its best. Contact us for preventive dental care and all your other dental needs for a beautiful and well-maintained smile.