Tobacco use negatively affects your body in many ways, leading to a variety of health complications. Some are more immediate, while others take a heavy toll on the major body systems over several years. Tobacco’s effects on health are best understood when we take a closer look at what it actually is. 

Understanding the Toxicity of Tobacco

Smoking is the most common way people consume tobacco, but other delivery methods are equally harmful, such as chewing or inhalation through the nose. In addition to nicotine, tobacco products can contain anywhere from 4,800 to 7,000 chemicals, the byproduct of over 600 ingredients. These ingredients include: 

  • Lead 
  • Hexamine
  • Methanol 
  • Formaldehyde 
  • Arsenic 
  • Cadmium 
  • Benzene 

All of the above have been found to cause cancer. There are 70 other known cancer-causing ingredients commonly found in most tobacco products. 

This lethal mixture can damage nearly every organ system in the human body. Tobacco increases your risk of developing cancer anywhere in the body and is the cause of most cases of lung cancer. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, tobacco-related deaths exceed the number of U.S. citizens who have died in all the wars fought by the United States.

No amount or type of tobacco consumption is safe. Damage to the body begins with only a small amount of tobacco and progresses with the regularity of use. Immediate tobacco effects can include any of the following:

Woman pulls lip down from teeth, showing the red irritation of gum disease.

  • Anxiety/irritability
  • Poor vision
  • Dulled smell and taste
  • Early menopause
  • Bronchitis 
  • Persistent coughing 
  • Increased blood pressure
  • Yellow fingernails
  • Erectile dysfunction
  • Infertility
  • Wrinkly skin
  • Increased blood clotting, raising risk for heart attack and stroke
  • 30-40% higher risk of developing type 2 diabetes 

Furthermore, studies show that a life-long smoker will lose an average of 10-11 years of life. Exposure to secondhand smoke also puts you at a greater risk for cancer, heart disease, and other tobacco-related health problems.

How Does Tobacco Affect Oral Health? 

While the health effects of tobacco tend to be well-known, its impacts on oral health are often underestimated. Here are three things you should watch out for if you currently consume tobacco:

Teeth Staining 

One of the most visible impacts of tobacco use is teeth staining. The tar and nicotine in tobacco products are absorbed into the pores of your teeth, resulting in a yellow or brown discoloration. While nicotine itself is colorless, it turns yellow in interaction with oxygen. That means that even e-cigarettes or vapes that contains nicotine can stain teeth. 

In the case of chewing tobacco, the brown tobacco mixes with saliva to produce a dark brown liquid that heavily stains teeth. The presence of this liquid will stain any teeth that it comes into contact with. Certain teeth may be darker than others, depending on your method of consumption.

Gum Disease

Periodontal disease, an infection of the gums, is the most common cause of tooth loss. It begins with bacteria that build up on the teeth and find their way under the gums. In later stages, the gums start to pull away from the teeth, forming deep pockets where infection can occur. 

The bone and tissue holding the teeth in place will disintegrate over time when left untreated, causing teeth to loosen and eventually fall out. Studies have confirmed that regular smokers have a higher rate of tooth loss when compared to the general population. Women who smoke are 2.5 times more likely to lose teeth than nonsmokers, while male smokers are 3.6 times more likely. 

Unfortunately, smoking tends to mask the gum bleeding of periodontitis, making the gums appear to be healthier than they truly are. This may explain why many tobacco users don’t end up receiving periodontal treatment until their condition has become more serious.

Another reason why tobacco consumers are so much more vulnerable to gum disease is that tobacco weakens the immune system. The presence of tobacco in the body detracts from immune functionality, making it harder for people to recover from gum disease.

Plaque Buildup

The chemicals in tobacco products affect the salivary glands in the mouth, decreasing saliva flow. Without a normal amount of saliva to wash away the oral bacteria from the teeth and gums, the plaque can build up more quickly. Plaque is a biofilm of live bacteria that grows on the inner surfaces of the mouth. At first, it is a filmy, colorless deposit, but when it hardens into tartar, it becomes brown or pale yellow. Tartar is a substance so hard that only a professional dental cleaning can remove it. 

The accumulation of plaque gives rise to dental decay, which progresses over time when left untreated. Enamel, the tooth’s top layer, can repair itself by using minerals from fluoride, commonly found in toothpaste. But when the enamel is weakened or destroyed from progressive decay, a cavity forms. A cavity entails permanent damage to the tooth and must be repaired with a filling.

Confronting the Effects of Tobacco 

If you smoke or consume tobacco products, you can reduce your risk of oral health problems by brushing and flossing twice daily. Schedule regular appointments as directed by your dentist to receive professional cleanings and oral cancer screenings. We usually recommend biannual appointments for tobacco users in order to address oral conditions that can rapidly develop in a short amount of time. 

If possible, quit smoking or at least cut down on the amount of tobacco consumed each day. Even decreasing to less than half a pack of cigarettes per day can help reduce your risk of developing gum disease. Creating a plan to quit tobacco use is an important step in improving your oral health. You should consult with your doctor about nicotine replacement therapy (NRT) products, which take the edge off nicotine withdrawal symptoms. Counseling and other psychological services may also be recommended to help you develop coping mechanisms that will reduce your need to use tobacco for stress relief.

The student dentists at Penn Dental Medicine understand the health challenges associated with tobacco use and want to help by providing high-quality dental care. We meet patients where they are and offer preventive and restorative treatments, as well as education to assist you in reaching your oral health goals. To contact us, please call 215-898-8965

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