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United States Department  of Veterans Affairs

In the Spotlight

Your Smile Says It All: Keeping Your Teeth and Mouth Healthy


Dentist examining the patient

Beautiful teeth can really enhance a person's appearance. But great teeth go beyond sheer vanity. They are an important part of your overall health and well-being.

"The health of your mouth is like a barometer for the health of the rest of your body," said Dr. Elizabeth Nunez, director of the Dental Education Program in the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) Office of Dentistry.

"We know there is a higher incidence of smoking and diabetes in the Veteran population," says Dr. Nunez, herself an Army Veteran. Both of these are risk factors for poor oral health. Smoking can lead to an increased risk for periodontal, or gum, disease - a leading cause of tooth loss and sensitivity. Apart from causing bad breath and stained teeth, smoking also causes delayed healing after a tooth is removed or other oral surgery.

According to Nunez, there has been research showing a link between diabetes and gum disease, so diabetic Veterans should be extra attentive to their oral care.

Age also increases the likelihood of oral health problems and Veterans tend to be older than the general population. Older Veterans tend to take more medications, many of which cause dry mouth. Dry mouth increases the risk of tooth decay because it decreases the protective properties of saliva.

Learn if You Are Eligible for VA Dental Care (PDF)

Among the conditions Nunez commonly treats in older Veterans are cavities - especially around the roots of teeth - gum disease and associated tooth loss. She also treats oral cancer lesions. "The good news is that we work as an integrated team in the VA," said Nunez. "If a primary care provider first identifies a lesion, he or she can notify a dentist, who can step in and help."

The other good news is that most oral disease is preventable. Nunez recommends following these Do's and Don'ts to keep your teeth and mouth healthy and looking good:

Things to Do:

Brush and Floss. Brush your teeth at least twice a day with fluoride toothpaste. Use a between-the-teeth cleaner, such as dental floss, to remove food and plaque that a toothbrush could miss. Use a soft-bristled toothbrush, which is gentler on the gums and tooth structure. Replace your toothbrush every three to four months - sooner if the brush bristles start to fray or you are recovering from a cold or illness.

Eat a balanced diet. A balanced, nutrient-rich diet is important for healthy teeth and gums. Eat plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables, lean meats, fish and whole grains.

Limit between-meal snacks. If you must snack, choose foods that are nutritious and low in sugar.

Get regular checkups. Get a dental exam at least once a year. Veterans with dental problems should see the dentist more often.

Dentist and a nurse examining a patient

But Don't:

Smoke or use tobacco products. Combined with drinking alcohol, tobacco use increases your risk of getting diseases that compromise your oral health.

Use illegal drugs. People who use drugs are prone to neglect their oral hygiene. They also tend to have more sugary diets. Not doing drugs is the smart choice for your health on every level.

Drink soda. Regular soda is full of sugar. And like regular soda, diet soda is very acidic. Too much acid in your diet erodes the enamel on your teeth, which can lead to tooth decay. Replace soda with a much healthier option - water.

Put things in your mouth. Habits such as holding pins in your mouth when you are sewing can damage your teeth. So can tongue rings or other piercings, which can hit against your teeth and chip them.

Using My HealtheVet

Information and tools on My HealtheVet can help you eat better, quit smoking and take better care of yourself. Recording all of the medications you take will make it easier to share this information with your dentist. You also can keep track of your dental appointments and what you eat each day.

Take stock of your oral health today - and keep smiling.

Learn More

VA Health Care (PDF)
Fact sheet on VA dental benefits

VA Office of Dentistry
Find a local dental clinic in your area

My HealtheVet
Dental Health for All Ages

Updated/Reviewed: October 15, 2012

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