Sally Weston-Price: Oral diseases can affect general wellbeing

Sally Weston Price

Sadly, oral diseases are still commonplace in the UK with the Adult dental health survey 2009, from the Health and Social Care Information Centre showing almost a third of adults have obvious tooth decay and nearly a half have signs of gum disease. It is important to remember that the mouth is attached to the body and oral diseases, such as tooth decay, can affect general wellbeing.

It is well known that tooth decay can lead to pain and discomfort, which may reduce an individual’s ability to perform tasks either directly or as a result of sleepless nights. Yet there are lesser-publicised impacts of oral disease that can include psychological and social effects. Dental conditions have been shown to reduce self-esteem and affect social interactions. The visible loss of teeth can lead people to experience acute social embarrassment and research has shown that the appearance of an unhealthy smile can even affect job prospects.

The good news is that many oral diseases are preventable by following steps that can be incorporated into a daily routine. The UK advice for adults to reduce their risk of dental decay and gum disease is to: brush teeth twice daily with fluoridated toothpaste last thing at night and at least on one other occasion; spit out after brushing and not to rinse, leaving a coating of fluoride on the teeth; reduce the frequency and amount of sugary food and drinks in the diet; avoid tobacco products and visit for a check-up at an interval agreed with a dentist.

Evidence shows that altering behaviour is a hard task. After all, how many times have we started a new diet or joined a new gym? To increase the uptake and maintenance of behaviours a routine can prove very effective and since we spend on average eight hours a day in the workplace, this is a crucial setting we can develop to support a healthy lifestyle. There can be implications for an employee’s work productivity due to poor oral health from lack of sleep to days off work due to pain or lengthy courses of dental treatment. Therefore, workplaces could be developed by employers to help individuals adopt healthy practices by creating supportive environments to promote oral health.

The best drink for our teeth is plain unflavoured water but often in work surroundings there are vending machines full of soft drinks. These drinks may be seen as falsely providing energy or even chosen due to lack of an alternative. However, soft drinks, both diet and regular versions, can prove harmful to teeth, with the sugar and acid they contain leading to erosion of the tooth surface and tooth decay. Therefore, by offering freely available drinking water through installing and maintaining drinking fountains, employees are aided in making healthy choices more freely and hopefully next time avoiding the temptation of the vending machine.

Similarly, to help employees choose and consume low-sugar meals and snacks, it would be supportive to have these products available in the workplace. Stocking canteens and vending machines with healthy alternatives to sugar-dense chocolate bars and cakes would provide an in-house solution.

If we wish to encourage good oral hygiene at work, the means to conduct this needs to be on site. Providing clean suitable spaces for tooth brushing would make the prospect far more appealing, which could be a necessity for those who have working patterns that are not conducive to brushing at home.

If people improve their oral health, routine dental appointments need not be frequent, because people with low risks of oral disease need to visit a dentist only once every two years. So investing in supporting good oral habits in the workplace can be cost-efficient for business by reducing sickness absence and time off for dental visits.

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Oral health is essential for general health and wellbeing. There are potential links between oral disease and systematic diseases, and these share common risks with many chronic diseases such as diabetes and chronic heart disease. Encouraging and supporting a healthy diet, good hygiene and responsible use of alcohol not only supports a healthy workplace in respect of the teeth and mouth but the whole body. In summary, creating healthy workplaces creates a healthy workforce.

Dr Sally Weston-Price is academic clinical fellow at Queen Mary University of London and Public Health England (London)