Take a Puff, Lose a Tooth

Mary Olson (not her real name) couldn’t wait. The 59-year-old from Janesville, Wisconsin, had avoided smiling for years, especially in photos. She was missing a few teeth already — and every new day brought anxiety that another tooth might be knocked loose.

Now, she was “finally scheduled to get them all pulled,” she told LifeZette.

The effects of periodontal disease are permanent. There’s no coming back from that.

Olson, a lifelong smoker, isn’t alone in taking that step — or needing something equally dire done.

“For patients who’ve been smoking since their teens, I typically see significant decay and periodontal issues in their mid-to-late 20s, with the potential for tooth loss,” Jennifer Van Wingen, a registered dental hygienist and continuing education instructor from Traverse City, Michigan, said.

“Many patients question why their teeth used to be so nice, but then over the years fell apart. They say their baby sucked the calcium out of their teeth, their parents lost their teeth at the same age so it’s genetic, their teeth got worse as they get older — but it’s the years of smoking,” she added.

Cancer, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (more commonly known as COPD), heart disease, low-birth-weight babies, and stroke have been some of the most commonly cited health concerns and chronic conditions connected to smoking. But there’s also bone loss in the jaw, inflammation of the salivary glands, higher risk of developing gum disease, and leukoplakia (an increased risk of tooth loss).

Health care professionals say if a limited capacity to breathe, move, and function later on in life doesn’t get people to finally think twice about quitting, perhaps appealing to their vanity and pocketbook will.

“Smoking affects gum health essentially by slowly breaking down the soft tissue and bone that anchor teeth in the jaw,” said Dr. Renee Townsend, DDS and regional dental director for Jefferson Dental in Texas. “As the tissue and bone erode, pockets develop around the teeth where bacteria and plaque can accumulate. Cigarette smoke hinders the healing process, so smokers may have a harder time recovering from infection or healing from dental treatments,” she added.

Treatments for lost teeth can be costly, and many smokers who seek dental implants find there are several more steps to repair the damage.

"With smokers who have a significant amount of bone loss, we have to reconstruct some bone in the jaw so that the implants have an area to anchor," said Townsend. "It gets to be costly and can be an intense process."

Smokers are also at a high risk for oral cancer. The Oral Cancer Foundation says those diagnosed today will likely not be alive in five years.

"I educate patients about the consequences of smoking beginning at age six, according to our industry guidelines and standard of care," said Van Wingen, the dental hygienist. "We talk about quality of life issues such as tasting food, being able to chew food, bad breath from diseased gums, and the expense of dental treatment. Many patients are shocked to find out their issues are from smoking alone."

"The damage you do in your teens and early years sets the stage for a lifetime of maintenance and work."

The effects of periodontal disease are permanent. There's no coming back from that, she added. Once the bone is destroyed — it's not coming back.

"Same thing with those little fibers that attach your gums to your tooth. They don't grow back. The damage you do in your teens and early years sets the stage for a lifetime of maintenance and work."

Dr. Rachel Bishop, an ophthalmologist with the National Eye Institute in Bethesda, Maryland, agreed that much of the damage done when people start smoking at a young age is irreversible. In terms of her specialty in vision loss, or the preservation of vision, smoking has been linked to increased rates of macular degeneration, increased cataracts, and increased types of optic nerve damage, among other issues.

"Imagine you've got splotches in your vision where things just look muddy. Your windshield has blobs of mud on it and you're trying to see through that," said Bishop.

That's not a situation most people would volunteer to have. "That's a really hard life — and not a high quality life," she added.

Last Modified: May 13, 2016, 9:40 am

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