Experts estimate that around 12 million people in America have HIV. While treatment methods for the disease are now more successful, people living with the condition must carefully consider every aspect of their health – including their teeth and gums. If you are HIV positive, learn how the disease affects your teeth and gums, and find out if you face a higher risk of tooth loss than anyone else.
How HIV affects the body
HIV is an immune deficiency virus that doctors cannot yet cure, but, with the right medical care, life expectancy is now almost the same for HIV patients as anyone else. The disease attacks the CD4 or T-cells in your body. As the number of T-cells decreases, your body can no longer effectively fight infection.
The T-cells normally kill any infected cells in the body. As the T-cells diminish, other crucial particles called B-cells (which create vital antibodies) cannot work properly either. A decrease in T-cells can lead to a variety of symptoms, including weight loss, oral yeast infections, shingles and other unpleasant infections.
How HIV affects oral health
Dentists are often the first people to spot the signs of HIV infection. Gum tissue in your mouth is relatively susceptible to infection at any time, but if your immune system is weak, oral health problems are more likely.
Oral signs that can suggest HIV infection include:
- Oral warts
- Canker sores
- Dry mouth
Dry mouth is particularly problematic. A lack of saliva makes it harder to chew and eat food properly. In turn, some people with this issue don't eat as healthily as they should, which can further worsen the effects of HIV infection.
HIV can make you more susceptible to cavities and gum disease. Left untreated, gingivitis can develop into more advanced periodontitis. In people with HIV, this type of serious gum disease can occur more quickly than in a healthy patient. As such, you are at higher risk of tooth loss if you don't keep your teeth and gums in a healthy state.
HIV treatment and oral health
Crucially (and somewhat ironically) some methods of HIV treatment can also increase the risk of tooth loss. For example, some types of HIV medication can significantly increase the risk of dry mouth. While the drug helps you keep a healthy T-cell count, the side effects can make your mouth more susceptible to infection.
The anti-viral medications that doctors prescribe for HIV can also cause side effects like nausea and vomiting. If you continually vomit, acidity in your saliva will increase. In these instances, you are more likely to experience oral infections like candidiasis, and the risk of tooth decay is also higher.
Cutting through the myths
Many people have false impressions of the side effects of HIV and AIDS. For example, while HIV can reduce bone density, this side effect does not affect your teeth or the protective enamel on the surface. In fact, scientists are unsure if the disease even affects the underlying bones that hold your teeth in place.
When doctors first diagnosed HIV and AIDS, some experts suggested that some dental treatments were dangerous for people with the disease. Some doctors believed that root canal treatments or extractions were too dangerous for people with lowered immunity.
There is no evidence that a positive HIV status should contraindicate any type of dental treatment. In all situations, people with HIV should consider any recommended dental treatment like any other patient.
Looking after your teeth and gums
Good dental hygiene is vital for people with HIV. You should brush your teeth twice daily and floss at least once a day. As part of this cleaning regime, make sure you continually look for any signs or symptoms of oral infection. As well as regular checkups, visit the dentist if you ever spot something unusual.
If you suffer a serious infection (or abscess) your dentist may prescribe an antibiotic like penicillin to help deal with the problem. A root canal treatment may also become necessary to drain the infected material out of the abscess. In all cases, you should always make sure your dentist knows about your HIV status, so he or she can talk to you about any other risks you may face.
HIV is a serious disease that causes lifelong problems with the immune system. People with HIV are at higher risk of tooth loss, but good care and maintenance can prevent permanent damage.