07 JANUARY 2019

Dry January sees people all around the world giving their liver a break by abstaining from alcohol. What many of us may not realise is that our mouth is also going to appreciate the respite.

Believe it or not, drinking too much alcohol can have a substantial impact on our oral health. It can lead to a range of diseases from tooth decay to mouth cancer. Studies have found that compared to non-drinkers, those who had one or more alcoholic drinks per day saw a reduction of healthy bacteria in the mouth, with a significant increase of harmful bacteria also detected.1

Such changes could lead to the development of diseases such as gum disease and tooth decay, as well as mouth and throat cancers. It is estimated that almost one in five of us that drink occasionally display signs of severe gum disease.

Why is alcohol bad for our mouth?

Alcoholic drinks such as white wine, beer and cider can be very acidic. This can cause erosion of the enamel on our teeth, possibly leading to pain and sensitivity.

Spirits such as vodka and whiskey are very high in alcohol and may give us dry mouth. On the other hand, ciders and lagers, as well as many mixers and alcopops, often contain high amounts of sugar. The latter can cause tooth decay.

As little as one pint of larger can contain a quarter of our recommended daily sugar intake, as does two large glasses of white wine.

Drinking alcohol to excess is also linked to one in three mouth cancers – a disease which has increased by 135% in the UK over the last 20 years.2

Alcohol also encourages more bad bacteria to develop in our mouth. Studies have found that wine drinkers produce more bacteria responsible for gum disease when compared to non-drinkers while those who consume beer produce an increase in bacteria that are linked to dental decay.3

Good bacteria however are bacteria that can help us avoid dental diseases. Specifically, the good bacteria inside our mouth will regulate the effects of bad bacteria by reducing the acidity and pH levels in the mouth. Good bacteria can also help with digestion because they will start breaking food down as soon as we start eating.

The Oral Health Foundation recommends getting plenty of probiotics to keep good bacteria in the mouth. We can get probiotics through several foods like soft cheeses and natural yoghurt. But make sure there’s no added sugar in the latter.

How big is the problem?

While having the odd drink is okay, it is those that drink regularly or in large amounts that are putting themselves more at risk. The latest figures estimate that around 40 million British adults regularly consume alcoholic drinks and while many do so moderately, some do not.

A recent study by Drinkaware found that among those who drink alcohol, more than one in four (27%) are classed as binge drinkers. The worst offenders are men – who are more than twice as likely as women to exceed the recommended maximum of 14-units of alcohol a week.

Mouth cancer diagnoses have risen dramatically over the last two decades and are predicted to continue rising. If people cut down on their alcohol consumption it could make a big difference in reducing cases of the disease.

Top tips on how to reduce the effects of alcohol on the teeth and mouth

While abstaining from alcohol will go far in improving our oral health, there are ways to find balance between drinking and a healthy mouth. That being said, here are some tips on how to do just that:

  1. Drink water after an alcoholic drink: It helps to balance pH levels in our mouth and wash some of the sugar away.
  2. Try and keep the alcohol confined to mealtimes: By drinking at meal times it will help to reduce the intensity of the acid “attack” on our teeth and weaken its effects.
  3. Use mouthwash: Mouthwash has a similar effect to water in that it will help wash away acidic substances such as alcoholic drinks from our teeth. The added benefit of mouthwash is that it will also go some way in protecting the teeth from further attack. Certain mouthwashes can coat our teeth in a protective shield and may help protect us against problems like gum disease or sensitive teeth. To check the benefits of each mouthwash, it is important to read the packaging prior to purchase.

For more information about how our diet affects our oral health check out our ‘Diet and my teeth’ page.

Alternatively, call our Dental Helpline on 01788 539780 for free, confidential and impartial advice on a range of oral health topics and issues. 

References

1. Fan, X., Peters, B., Jacobs, E., Gapstur, S., Purdue, M., Freedman, N., Alekseyenko, A., Wu, J., Yang, L., Pei, Z., Hayes, R. and Ahn, J. (2018). Drinking alcohol is associated with variation in the human oral microbiome in a large study of American adults. Microbiome, 6(1).

2. Oral Health Foundation (2018), State of Mouth Cancer UK Report 2018/2019.

3. Fan et al., (2018).