Oral Hygiene and RA: Protect Yourself Against Periodontal Disease
Oral health and hygiene are important for everybody, but especially so for people living with rheumatoid arthritis. People diagnosed with RA can experience oral problems such as dry mouth (xerostomia), methotrexate-induced mouth ulcers, temporomandibular disorders like TMJ, infection, and periodontal disease (gingivitis and periodontitis)1.
How does RA affect oral hygiene?
Certain RA symptoms promote bad oral health
Dry mouth and inflammation are common symptoms of Sjogren’s Syndrome, an autoimmune disease that approximate 10-15% of those diagnosed with RA develop. Dry mouth can contribute to tooth decay, gingivitis, and thrush. Patients may find temporary relief by drinking water, chewing gum, or using saliva substitutes. If these are not sufficient, then patients should ask their doctors about prescription medications to combat symptoms.
Side effects of RA medications
Patients who use methotrexate may experience inflammation of the mucous membrane (called mucositis) which can lead to oral ulcers. Folic acid or folinic acid supplements are frequently used to reduce this type of inflammation2. Recommended dosage and dose scheduling varies somewhat from doctor to doctor. My rheumatologist is fine with me taking an OTC folic acid supplement of 800 mcg daily, except for the day on which I take methotrexate.
Increased risk of periodontal disease in RA
Earlier onset and faster progression
Studies show that people with RA are at increased risk of periodontal disease. Researchers have found that the bacteria, porphyromonas gingivalis, which is responsible for periodontal disease worsens RA by leading to earlier onset, faster progression and greater severity of disease, including increased bone and cartilage destruction3.
When bacteria combine with mucus and other particles in the mouth, a sticky plaque forms on teeth that needs to be removed with daily brushing and flossing. Plaque that hardens becomes tartar which can lead to gingivitis, characterized by red, swollen gums that may bleed easily. Improved dental hygiene and proper treatment is often effective against gingivitis.
How can I avoid periodontal disease?
Symptoms of periodontal disease
Periodontal disease is more than just gingivitis; it involves chronic inflammation that affects tissue surrounding teeth, ligaments providing support, and the bone into which teeth are anchored. Besides bleeding gums, symptoms of periodontal disease include receding gum-line, deep pockets around the tooth, loose teeth, and eventual bone erosion and tooth loss. Studies have shown that bone loss related to periodontal disease is similar to that in other joints of people with RA4.
Tips to protect oral health
In contrast to a century ago, doctors do not suggest that people with RA automatically have their teeth removed to avoid infection. That seems a bit barbaric nowadays. But we should want to keep our teeth as healthy as possible for as long as possible.
Here are some suggestions which may help you protect against oral disease:
- Brush with a soft bristle toothbrush for two minutes, twice each day. You can use an electric toothbrush which may be more efficient, but might be heavy.
- If you have difficulty holding a regular toothbrush, try using a child’s toothbrush which comes with a wider handle and has a gentle tongue brush built in which helps to clean the inside of your cheeks while you brush. (This is what I use. It’s easy to hold, effective, and a bit whimsical.)
- Replace your toothbrush every 3 months, even if it doesn’t seem too worn. Also, replace your toothbrush after you’ve been sick to avoid reinfecting yourself.
- Floss daily to remove plaque and food particles located where brushing cannot reach, such as below the gum line.
- Rinse each day with an anti-microbial mouthwash to reduce bacteria and help prevent gingivitis.
- Visit your dentist or dental hygienist every 6 months for professional cleaning and routine checkup. If you notice signs of gum disease, such as bleeding or swollen gums, see your dentist as soon as possible and follow the recommended treatment plan.
- If you use methotrexate, talk to your rheumatologist about taking folic acid.
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