Oral Health Problems Common in Seniors and Denture Wearers
by sasha der avanessian
As a denture wearer, you are exposed to more oral health problems than someone with real teeth. Your risk of developing dental and oral health problems also increases with age, creating the perfect storm for countless Americans who tick both of those boxes. It’s not all bad news, though, as understanding what those issues are can help you to prevent them, treat them, and stay healthy.
In this guide, we’ll look at some of the most common oral health issues faced by seniors, and specifically seniors that wear dentures.
Obviously, tooth loss is an issue that all denture wearers have experienced and if you’re a senior who has yet to suffer from multiple tooth loss, there’s a good chance that this issue is waiting for you around the corner.
Tooth loss is more common among seniors for several reasons, but the main issue is an accumulation of all other problems. For instance, there is a small chance that you will lose a tooth in an accident, a bigger chance that you will lose one to decay, and the biggest chance that it will be extracted because it is impacted, cracked, chipped, or otherwise damaged.
During any given year, there is a good chance that at least one of these things will happen and when you hit your 60th or even your 70th year, the odds begin working against you and you’re more likely to have lost multiple teeth than you are to have retained all of them.
In our article, A Guide to Tooth Loss by Age, we noted that nearly a third of all over-70s have no teeth in the United States and that the average septuagenarian has lost 13 to 14 teeth.
The good news is that tooth loss is very common and easily remedied. You can still have a big and beautiful smile, even if you have none of your real teeth. Implants, crowns, dentures—there are plenty of options available to you.
Although Stomatitis sounds more like a stomach condition to the English ear, it actually comes from the Greek word “στόμα”, which means “mouth”. The suffix of the word, “ίτις” means “inflammation”, giving us a word that literally means “inflammation of the mouth”. More specifically, it refers to an inflammation of the mucous membranes of the mouth and lips, and there are a multitude of causes, including nutritional deficiency and allergic reactions.
Where seniors are concerned, the most common cause is denture-related stomatitis, whereby the mucosa under the denture becomes red. It’s often a relatively benign issue that doesn’t present with a great deal of pain or discomfort, but it can be frustrating and occasionally irritating for denture wearers. It can also develop into oral thrush, at which point it becomes a little more problematic.
Denture-related stomatitis is easy to treat, and your doctor will likely prescribe some antifungal medication. You can also prevent the issue from occurring in the first place by improving your dental hygiene and following the maintenance routine that we have highlighted many times here on the XODENT blog.
Gingivitis and periodontitis are both grouped under the umbrella of ”gum disease” and are often confused with one another, but there is a very distinct difference.
Gingivitis is caused by the accumulation of plaque in hard-to-reach areas, such as underneath the gum line and between the gaps in your teeth. The gums become inflamed as a result of this bacteria and they tend to bleed when you floss or brush. As a denture wearer, you may be less prone to this issue as there are fewer places for the plaque to hide, but you are certainly not immune and if you’ve already had your teeth removed, you may have experienced this issue before.
Gingivitis will impact the gums and teeth, making them red and swollen, but in the early stages, it won’t cause them to recede and the teeth will remain firmly lodged in place.
If it is untreated, then gingivitis will progress into periodontitis, and this is when it becomes a serious problem. Periodontitis causes the gum to pull away from the teeth. The body struggles to fight the spread of infection caused by the bacteria and it takes its toll on the mouth, impacting the alignment of the teeth and potentially making them loose and wobbly.
As a senior, your risk of developing periodontitis is quite high, and this is a concern. A large number of denture wearers have struggled with the indignity of this condition in the past and may have lost multiple teeth as a result. However, if you have yet to make the switch to dentures and still have all of your teeth, you can stop the rot by maintaining a good oral hygiene routine.
Follow your dentist’s advice, brush for two minutes twice a day, floss at least once per day, and make sure you visit your dentist at the first sign of trouble. If you do all of these things, you can prevent periodontitis from appearing in the first place and ensure it doesn’t have a chance to do any damage to your beautiful teeth!
Dry mouth is very common in seniors and denture wearers and it’s a problem that can lead to many others and also have innumerable causes. For instance, you may suffer from dry mouth if you take pain-killing medications like opioids or use an anti-histamine. It is also triggered by dozens of other medications. Age increases your risk, as well, and you are more likely to suffer from dry mouth if you smoke, drink, use alcohol mouthwash, have diabetes, and even if you suffer from regular bouts of anxiety.
So, what’s the problem with a little dry mouth every now and then, you may wonder? Well, firstly, your mouth needs saliva to combat acidity and fight bacteria, and the less acidity and bacteria you have in your mouth, the better!
Some sugar-free mints and no-stick chewing gum can help, as well, as chewing stimulates saliva flow.
Oral cancer is rare and accounts for just 3% of all cancers diagnosed in the United States. However, rates of oral cancer are highest among older men, and the risk increases significantly in individuals who smoke or drink. One of the biggest issues with oral cancer is that it’s often only discovered when it has spread to other parts of the body, including the lymph nodes.
Some of the symptoms of oral cancer including:
- Unexplained bleeding in the mouth
- Red or white patches
- Persistent sores that bleed often and don’t seem to heal
- Difficulty swallowing and chewing (other than those related to new dentures or ill-fitting dentures)
- A significant change in the way that your dentures fit
- Sudden weight loss
Oral cancer is significantly more common in individuals who smoke and drink, and research also suggests that users of chewing tobacco, snuff, and dip are up to 50 times more likely to develop it. It’s also more common in individuals who have a family history of cancer or have been exposed to an excessive amount of UV rays.
Speak with your doctor if you notice any of these symptoms and/or you are in any of the high-risk groups.
Throat cancer symptoms can appear in the nose and mouth, as well as the throat. It often presents with a lump, but symptoms can also include hoarseness, difficulty swallowing, and a chronic cough. The earliest symptoms of throat cancer are said to be similar to a cold or mild viral infection, including a persistent cough and sore throat. The difference is that throat cancer symptoms will persist for much longer than the average cold.
To determine if you have any cancerous lumps in your throat, you will need to visit your doctor and undergo an examination. They will likely ask questions about your family history and your lifestyle, as habits such as smoking and heavy drinking are common in a throat cancer diagnosis.
Black and Hairy Tongue
Your tongue is covered with tiny little bumps that can trap bacteria. If these grow too long, and you consume a diet that is rich in tannins (from tea and coffee) and tar (from tobacco), your tongue may look like it is coated in thick black hair. It’s not actually hair, but it’s definitely off-putting and doesn’t make for an attractive sight.
It’s not something that is limited to denture wearers, but as it is more common in older adults, as well as those who suffer from chronic dry mouth, it is somewhat common among this demographic.
Fortunately, it’s also completely harmless and easy to remedy.
You just need to scrape all of that nasty discolored bacteria away. You can use a tongue scraper to do this or you can simply brush your tongue with a soft-bristled brush. You’ll need to be gentle, as you don’t want to damage your tongue, and you should also rinse thoroughly afterward, making sure you have removed every last grain of bacteria. If your tongue is clean again and the water runs clear when you rinse, then you know you’ve gotten all of it.
Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) is a condition characterized by the flow of acid from the stomach and up the esophagus. It is very common and becomes even more common with age. Although it can be managed with medication and lifestyle changes, in severe cases it can result in the movement of acid from the esophagus into the throat and even the mouth, leading to burning, scarring, and potentially causing oral health problems.
If you have dentures, the issue may be exacerbated.
Firstly, it’s always worse in people who suffer from dry mouth, as saliva helps to neutralize the acid inside the mouth, throat, and stomach, preventing the damage that it does to the gums, tongue, and cheeks. Secondly, you may find yourself making dietary changes without realizing it and these changes could trigger your reflux.
For instance, many GERD sufferers are triggered by rich foods and acidic foods, including everything from pastry and butter to fruit juice. If you’re focusing more on things that are easy to chew and still loaded with flavor, you may find yourself eating more foods that do you harm.
One of the frustrating and worrying things about persistent GERD is that it can mirror the effects of more serious conditions. For instance, it can make you hoarse and leave you with a sore throat, and if you don’t get adequate treatment or make necessary lifestyle changes, these systems will persist and may cause you to run a few panicked Google searches for throat cancer.
If you’re not sure whether what you have is GERD or something else, you can make some minor adjustments to your diet and lifestyle and see if it has any impact:
- Avoid spicy food
- Drink lots of water
- Limit your caffeine intake
- Avoid fizzy and sugary drinks
- Stay away from buttery and fatty foods
- Reduce your alcohol intake
- Stop smoking
- Sleep on your left side
- Don’t lie down immediately after eating
Canker sores are mysterious in that no one really knows what causes them. However, we do know that they seem to be more common in people who are stressed, undergoing major hormonal changes, or don’t consume an adequate diet. They are small white blisters that appear on the inside of your mouth and while they typically only last for a week or two, they can be a nuisance during that time.
If you wear dentures, you may be more at risk of developing these sores and they will also likely cause you a great deal of stress and discomfort if they appear next to where your dentures go. In such cases, you can use numbing ointments to soothe the pain and provide some lubrication.
If the problem persists and you notice that you are getting a lot of canker sores, you can speak with your doctor. There are treatments available that can eradicate them and make life a little easier for you.
Bad breath is very common among denture wearers because there are many causes directly and indirectly related to denture use. For instance, denture wearers that neglect to scrape their tongues and brush their gums will likely experience bad breath more often than someone with regular teeth who follows a strict oral hygiene routine.
Many new denture wearers assume they can relax their dental hygiene habits when they first get fake teeth, but the opposite is true. You need to take extra care to ensure that your dentures are clean and your mouth is fresh, otherwise, all of that bacteria will fester, grow, and make your breath smell like the devil’s armpit!
Other issues include dry mouth, which we touched on above. When you’re not producing enough saliva, you don’t have anything to guard against all of that bacteria, and it can spread on your dentures and inside your mouth.
The temporomandibular joint (TMJ) is basically a hinge that connects your jawbone to your skull and temporomandibular disorders (TMD) refers to issues that present in this joint. It can be difficult to determine where this issue comes from, which can make it hard to find a cure, but it’s often associated with teeth grinding and arthritis and seems to be common in denture wearers.
The pain associated with TMJ disorders is often temporary, but if it doesn’t go away, you should consult with a doctor. They will likely recommend some self-care treatments to help you manage the condition and the discomfort that it presents you with. In more serious cases, surgical intervention may be required.
Oral thrush affects all age groups, but it presents more often in babies, the elderly, and individuals with compromised immune systems. More often than not, it is a minor issue and is nothing to worry about. But if you have a suppressed immune system, it can become much more serious. Oral thrush is also very common in denture wearers who develop stomatitis, which we discussed above.
Some of the most common causes of oral thrust in denture wearers include:
- Not cleaning the mouth and dentures properly
- Suffering from dry mouth
- Taking antibiotics
- Suffering from diabetes or immune system disorders
- Consuming a diet that is rich in carbohydrates
Some of the most common symptoms of thrush include redness and/or soreness in the mouth, feeling like your mouth is filled with cotton balls, and experiencing issues swallowing and eating. The most common symptoms are white legions that appear in your mouth (including the gums, cheeks, tongue, and tonsils).
Thrush is treated with topical antifungal medications, along with antimicrobial mouthwash. These can be used in the mouth to eliminate the bacteria that causes thrush, but you will also need to thoroughly clean your dentures to ensure that all traces of it are removed before you place them back in your mouth.
We have repeatedly stressed the importance of cleaning and maintaining your dentures on the XODENT blog, noting how it will prolong the life of your dentures and prevent issues such as bad breath. But there is more to it than that. Proper cleaning, along with staying hydrated, will limit the bacteria that you introducing to your mouth. This, in turn, will help to prevent issues such as oral thrush.
Summary: Dealing with Mouth Sores and Irritation
Your mouth is a haven for bacteria. It processes everything you drink and eat, and if you wear dentures, it also has the burden of supporting a contraption made from metal, plastic, and other such materials. There is a lot going on, and it’s not unusual for little bumps, sores, and cuts to appear without an obvious cause.
If you’re worried about the appearance of any sores or bumps, you should consult with your doctor. More often than not, they can be explained away by many minor incidents and issues, but it is always better to be safe than sorry.