The best practices for oral healthcare seem like they should remain consistent through life.
Brush twice daily, floss regularly, schedule regular appointments with the dentist, be frugal with your consumption of sugary foods: these tips are drilled into us from our very first dental appointments as kids.
For women, though, oral health isn’t as simple as a bulleted list of universal best practices.
On the contrary, oral health needs change throughout a woman’s life depending on age, habits, and reproductive cycle. While these changes do not fundamentally alter dental best practices—brushing and flossing regularly are things everyone should do, regardless of life stage—they can demand extra care at certain life stages.
Life Stages and Why They Matter for a Woman’s Oral Health
Oral health isn’t all about what we eat or drink, or how good we are about brushing and going to the dentist. On the contrary, oral health can also fluctuate based on hormone levels.
It is because of these fluctuations that oral care strategies can change throughout a woman’s life. Female hormone levels vary significantly during puberty, menstruation, pregnancy, and menopause. These changes can affect plaque buildup and even the way that the teeth react to plaque.
The simplest advice to give is that women should pay extra attention to their dental care when going through puberty, menstruation, pregnancy, and menopause.
Brushing and flossing more regularly during these times is essential to protect oral health and prevent oral diseases. In particular, women tend to be more vulnerable than men to issues such as cavities, alveolar bone loss, premature tooth loss, periodontal disease (a type of gum disease), and general oral pain or discomfort.
Hormone changes can also affect the production of saliva. Women at various stages of life have reported changes in the quantity and quality of saliva produced by their saliva glands.
These shifts can have a vast range of impacts, from short-term to long. In the short-term, saliva production impacts taste and speech. Changes in saliva quality or quantity can make foods taste differently or subtly alter patterns of speech production.
On the long-term, saliva is also crucial for lubricating the teeth, maintaining the pH balance of the oral cavity, driving the earliest stages of digestion, and serve immune functions.
If saliva production is down, the mouth is just generally less healthy, which increases the risk for cavities and other types of tooth and gum damage.
These points are all just general, describing some of how natural hormonal changes can alter the course of oral health for female patients. Specific issues or symptoms are more common for given stages of a woman’s life.
Below, we have outlined some of the typical oral health complaints that women raise at different points in life.
Puberty and Menstruation
For some women, swelling and bleeding gums are symptoms that commonly manifest at the start of a period cycle. For others, periods are preceded by canker sores or cold sores.
Usually, these symptoms go away once the period starts. Sometimes, though, these issues can be more chronic. For women taking oral contraceptives, inflamed or swollen gums can be a common and chronic side effect.
Red, inflamed gums and canker sores are also common symptoms for girls going through puberty. Establishing a rigorous daily dental health routine— usually once-a-day flossing and twice-a-day brushing—is the best way to reduce these symptoms.
It is not uncommon for pregnant women to experience what is called “pregnancy gingivitis.” While this issue sounds worrying, it mostly just means that pregnant women are likely to notice swelling or tenderness in their gums.
Hormonal changes during pregnancy increase blood flow to the gums, which the American Pregnancy Association says will lead to swelling, sensitivity, and irritation in the gums.
A bigger problem than the irritation and swelling is that the hormonal changes also affect the body’s ability to fight bacteria. As such, pregnancy gingivitis usually makes it easier for plaque to accumulate on the teeth, which increases the risk for tooth decay and other more serious dental problems.
So, what should pregnant women be doing to manage pregnancy gingivitis and protect their oral health?
According to the American Dental Association, pregnant women who are brushing their teeth twice a day and flossing once a day are typically doing enough to stay healthy. However, it’s never a waste of time for pregnant women to consult their dentists about oral healthcare habits.
Another complicating factor is morning sickness. Vomit is full of stomach acid, which can eat away at your teeth and cause permanent damage. Instead of brushing right away after a bout with morning sickness, the ADA recommends that women wait about 30 minutes for a full brush. In the interim, the ADA says women should rinse their mouths and teeth with a mixture of water and baking soda.
Women experiencing menopause should consult their doctors to learn more about the mouth changes and oral health ramifications that can arise during these years.
According to Colgate, side effects of menopausal hormone changes can include burning mouth syndrome, dry mouth, changes in mucous production levels, periodontitis, and osteoporosis. From discomfort or intense pain to long-term damage to the teeth and gums, these issues should not be ignored.
In addition to consulting their dentists at the start of menopause, women should also be aware of some of the more serious oral health symptoms of this period of life. Dry mouth and receding gums, for instance, are issues that demand dental attention right away, to prevent severe and irreversible damage.
A dental professional will be able to recommend strategies for curbing both problems. Dry mouth can be treated by drinking more water, sucking on ice chips, brushing with a prescription-strength toothpaste, or avoiding things such as alcohol and spicy foods. Receding gums and the bone loss they indicate can be slowed or stopped by increasing intake of calcium and vitamin D and cutting back on alcohol and smoking.
Women cannot avoid the significant hormonal changes that their bodies go through at different periods of life. What can be avoided is the long-term damage that these hormonal changes can cause to the teeth and gums.
By being knowledgeable about how hormones impact oral health and vigilant about brushing, flossing, visiting the dentist, and monitoring diet, women of all ages, can ensure healthy mouths for life.
- https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/B978012384978600100X https://www.sciencedirect.com/sdfe/pdf/download/eid/3-s2.0-B978012384978600100X/first- page-pdf
- https://www.colgate.com/en-in/oral-health/life-stages/adult-oral-care/womens-oral-health- and-overall-health