By now, it’s no shocker that prolonged and excessive exposure to nicotine causes a variety of health issues. And, hopefully, most folks know that any form of tobacco—cigarettes, pipes, chew—causes harm. Safe tobacco? That’s not a thing. According to Cancer.org: “Smoke from all cigarettes, natural or otherwise, has many chemicals that can cause cancer (carcinogens) and toxins that come from burning the tobacco itself, including tar and carbon monoxide. Even herbal cigarettes with no tobacco give off tar, particulates, and carbon monoxide and are dangerous to your health.”
According to Johns Hopkins Medicine each tobacco product is linked to an increased risk for specific cancers. That’s because all tobacco products contain the following:
- Poisonous substances (toxins)
- Cancer-causing agents (carcinogens)
- Nicotine, an addictive substance
And according to the CDC: “More than 16 million U.S. adults are living with a disease caused by cigarette smoking. These diseases include serious health conditions affecting the mouth and oral cavity, including oropharyngeal cancer, gum disease and recession, tooth decay, bone loss, failure of dental implants, canker sores, and stained teeth.”
So let’s break it down into what gets harmed when you use tobacco products and how it gets harmed. We’ll also look at ways to wean yourself off nicotine and how your dentist can help.
Tobacco’s harm to teeth
Because so much of the medical harm to your teeth has to do with the harm being caused to your gums, let’s first address the superficial stuff. We’re talking about stained teeth. Once you start using nicotine products, the enamel on your teeth knows it. The first reaction is to turn yellow. Then, over time, that process leads to more of a brown appearance.
There are some products out there to help, and teeth whitening is a service most dentists provide nowadays at least to some degree. And the best news is there is a way to prevent nicotine from damaging the color of your teeth: Never start smoking or chewing tobacco at all.
Tobacco’s harm to gums
Smoking is a clear and leading cause of severe gum disease in the United States. Gum (or periodontal) disease is an infection of the gums that can damage the bone structure supporting your teeth. It starts with bacteria on your teeth that get under your gums. If the germs stay on your teeth for too long, layers of plaque and tartar develop, causing gingivitis.
Wait, it gets worse. Gum disease can get so bad that your gums can separate from your teeth and form spaces that get infected. This is called periodontitis, and your teeth may need to be pulled out.
What’s all this got to do with tobacco use? Plenty.
Smoking weakens the body’s immune system, making it harder to fight off a gum infection and harder for your gums to heal from that gum infection. Smokers are twice as likely to have gum disease compared to nonsmokers. And the more you smoke as well as the longer you smoke both increase risk.
Regular cleanings at your dentist’s office and daily brushing and flossing can help treat early gum disease, but in advanced cases your dental care provider may need to:
- Deep clean below the gum line.
- Prescribe mouth rinse or medicine.
- Surgically remove tartar deep under the gums.
- Surgically help heal bone or gums by using small bits of bone or tissue to fill places where bone or tissue has been lost.
Tobacco’s harm to mouth and throat
Folks who use chewing tobacco to save their lungs from cancer may be well-intended, but they’re not well-informed. Chewing tobacco can cause cancer in the cheek, gums, and lips. According to Johns Hopkins Medicine, cancer caused by smokeless tobacco often begins as:
- Leukoplakia—a whitish patch that develops inside the mouth or throat.
- Erythroplakia—a red, raised patch that develops inside the mouth.
These are also linked to esophageal and pancreatic cancers. Recent data shows that the median survival for untreated advanced pancreatic cancer is about three and a half months and with good treatment this increases to about eight months. This is serious stuff.
Since 2018, the CDC has been partnering with the Office on Smoking and Health, the American Dental Association, and the American Dental Hygienists’ Association to promote a program called Tips®. That’s because the organization has recognized that all dental professionals can play a key role in fighting tobacco use in their patients.
Essentially, the Tips campaign is a conversation starter offering resources, such as handouts, posters, and videos, for dentists and patients. Your dental care provider is a sort of first line of defense in preventing the adverse effects of tobacco use. That’s because adverse effects often show up in the mouth first, and when a dentist or hygienist has a patient in a chair and looking at a mirror, patients tend to listen better and follow advice or encouragement more, studies show.
Here are some reasons to quit the Tips campaign points out that may be obvious to some, but are overlooked by many when nicotine has its way:
The Most Obvious
- Your chances of having cancer, heart attacks, heart disease, stroke, and other diseases will go down.
- You will be less likely to get sick.
- You will breathe easier and cough less.
- Your skin will look healthier, and you will look more youthful.
- Your teeth and fingernails will not be stained.
The Less Obvious
- You will have more money to spend.
- You can spend more time with family, catch up on work, or dive into your favorite hobby.
- You won’t have to worry about when you can smoke next or where you can or can’t smoke.
- Your food will taste better.
- Your clothes will smell better.
- Your car and home won’t smell like smoke.
- You will be able to smell food, flowers, and other things better.