“We don’t smoke, and we don’t chew,” begins a wise old ditty. Smoking and chewing tobacco are unhealthy habits, but they can be especially damaging to your oral health. And of the two, to many people’s surprise, chewing may be the more harmful choice.
Chewing tobacco, or smokeless tobacco – or sometimes called “snuff” – generally contains all the dangerous chemicals found in smoking tobacco and can cause the same problems – and worse ones. Three to four times more nicotine is absorbed from smokeless tobacco than from cigarettes and, because it’s swallowed, the nicotine remains longer in the blood stream.
Plus, smokeless tobacco is as addictive as cigarette tobacco. If you start, it will be difficult to stop.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that 3% of Americans, most of them men, chew tobacco. More alarming though, is that 13.6% of high school boys chew, and the habit is growing in popularity in middle school, with girls making up one-third of the users.
Snuff may be a fad, but it’s dangerous to your health, especially your mouth, teeth and throat. Before you take it up, consider these possible consequences to your well-being:
Increased risk of oral cancer: According to the CDC, smokeless tobacco contains at least 28 carcinogens that can cause mouth, tongue, cheek, gum and other cancers. The American Cancer Society reports smokeless tobacco users show higher rates of leukoplakia, or precancerous patches, in the mouth. Smokeless tobacco is also associated with two of the deadliest cancers, esophageal and pancreatic.
More cavities: You may be surprised to learn chewing tobacco contains high amounts of sugar. It’s put there to enhance the flavor, but, like all sugar, it can contribute to tooth decay. Also, coarse particles in the tobacco can scratch your tooth enamel, making your teeth more susceptible to invasion by decay-causing bacteria. Tobacco also reduces saliva flow in your mouth. How does that cause cavities? Two ways: Saliva washes food residue off your teeth, and, because it contains minerals, including calcium, it helps to remineralize the enamel.
Gum disease: Because it remains in the mouth, smokeless tobacco can irritate the gum tissue, causing it to pull away from the teeth and exposing the roots to decay. Over time, as the gums continue to recede, the soft tissue and bone will erode and teeth will loosen or fall out. Nicotine also decreases blood flow to the gums, which makes them more susceptible to infection and slows wound healing.
Stained teeth: The brown juices created from chewing tobacco mixed with saliva bathe the teeth and leave unsightly stains. Though dentists can usually remove them, the process takes longer than for people who do not use tobacco. And there are always those weeks in between your dental visits when you don’t feel like smiling.
Specialized treatment: If you’re a snuff user and you need specialized dental work, such as periodontal, gum treatment or dental implants, your chance for success is lower if your gums and bones are unhealthy from years of nicotine exposure.
Bad breath: The dry mouth tobacco causes is one reason users have bad breath. Another is the greater likelihood a smoker’s mouth contains decay and disease. And a third: tobacco simply doesn’t smell good, though smokers and chewers mostly can’t detect that.
Toxicity: This doesn’t relate specifically to dental health, but if you need another push to quit tobacco, consider that nicotine is poison. It can be especially fatal to children who find and eat it.
If you’re smoking or chewing tobacco, it’s imperative to your health, especially your dental health, that you try to stop. Quitting isn’t easy – and may be even harder with smokeless tobacco because of the higher dose of nicotine – but it can be achieved. There are products and programs that help. A good place to start is a consultation with your dentist or doctor.