Poor Oral Health May Impact Head and Neck Cancer Survival

People who visited the dentist more regularly had a higher chance of detecting their cancer earlier than those who saw the dentist infrequently, or never, says new study.

The mouth is teeming with microorganisms, largely benign like other body parts. However, some of these bacteria can cause illnesses as the mouth serves as the entrance to the digestive and respiratory systems.

Bacteria are often kept in check by the body's natural defenses and proper oral hygiene practices like regular brushing and flossing. But without good dental hygiene, germs may build up to the point where they cause issues, including tooth decay and gum disease. For this reason, it is crucial to pay attention to your morning and nightly routines.

A global investigation has found strong correlations between dental health and survival among patients with head and neck cancer. More specifically, higher oral health, as shown by the number of healthy teeth and dental visits before diagnosis, was linked to longer life. Importantly, people who visited the dentist more frequently had a higher likelihood of having their cancer detected earlier and less severe than those who saw the dentist infrequently or never.

The research, conducted in collaboration with the International Head and Neck Cancer Epidemiology (INHANCE) consortium by scientists from the UNC Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center, UNC Adams School of Dentistry, and Moffitt Cancer Center in Tampa, Florida, was published in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute.

They were able to be as comprehensive as possible and find strong connections between oral health and survival due to the patient data from the INHANCE collaboration, according to lead author Jason Tasoulas.

The connection between oral health and cancer

Patients with head and neck cancer were asked to self-report details of their oral health and hygiene, such as how frequently they brushed their teeth, whether they used mouthwash, how many of their natural teeth they had, and how often they visited the dentist in the ten years before receiving their cancer diagnosis.

Compared to individuals who had no dental appointments, those who saw the dentist often (more than five times in a reported decade) had more remarkable overall survival at five and ten years. This conclusion was particularly prominent in patients with oropharyngeal cancer, which affects the soft palate, tonsils, and base of the tongue in the back of the throat.

Those who had more than 20 natural teeth had a 15% higher five-year overall survival rate. Patient-reported mouthwash usage, dental brushing, and gum bleeding all showed less than 5% survival differences that were not statistically significant. Head and neck squamous cell carcinoma (HNSCC) is the sixth most frequent cancer globally.

It makes up roughly 4% of all malignancies in the United States, even though survival rates have increased in recent years due to advancements in therapy.

According to estimates, 66,920 Americans will receive a diagnosis of the illness in 2023. Smoking is the most significant environmental risk factor for the disease, although other risk factors include drinking alcohol and having the human papillomavirus.

The research team adds, "Our hope is that these findings become a standard part of guidelines implemented for the prevention and management of head and neck squamous cell carcinomas in the near future."

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