At my office we practice dentistry with a total health and wellness approach. We believe that what happens in your mouth absolutely affects your body as a whole. Everything in your mouth, from the materials we use in dentistry, to the types of bacteria, viruses, and fungi affect your overall well-being. Our bodies are in a delicate balance and one of the things that can throw that balance off is the topic of this article.
When I started in dentistry, antibiotics were prescribed much more than they are prescribed today. Some patients, when having any antibiotic prescribed would automatically ask for an anti-fungal because they knew they would get a yeast infection. These patients are few in number and I find myself educating many people about the potential for secondary infections caused by taking medications like antibiotics. In dentistry the most commonly seen is a candida infection.
Candida is a parasite that is known as a fungus or yeast. Fungi and bacteria usually live in harmony within a host and balance each other out by competing for available food sources. Candida’s main source of food is sugar. Any food that someone eats that contains high amounts of carbohydrates or sugars encourages the candida to grow. People are a common host and when there is an overgrowth of candida it is known as a candida infection or thrush. It can affect anyone, but occurs most often in babies and toddlers, older adults, and people with weakened immune systems.
Candida is a fungus that can be normally found anywhere in the body, especially in dark, moist places, like the mouth. Thrush is often caused in children and adults by anything that could affect the body’s normal levels of bacteria. Once the bacteria or fungus is destroyed, the other usually overgrows. An overgrowth of candida typically occurs as a result of: taking antibiotics or steroids, chemotherapy, birth control pills, or diseases that affect the immune system. Conditions that make candida infection more likely to develop include uncontrolled diabetes, HIV infection, cancer, pregnancy, or smoking. Denture wearing patients (especially dentures that fit poorly) or people who have a dry mouth are at greater risk for getting thrush. Babies commonly will develop thrush and it will show up in their mouth or as a diaper rash. A nursing child can transfer the thrush to the mother.
There are signs to be aware of to identify if you have a candida infection. Some of the first signs are a bad taste in the mouth or a decrease in the ability to taste. Candida within the mouth often causes white patches that appears like cottage cheese. When these white areas are scraped off the area underneath is red and often bleeds. Sometimes these areas are painful, but usually they are not. The corners of the mouth appear red and cracked.
Candida infections can spread beyond the mouth to the rest of the body. In severe cases, the lesions may spread into your esophagus, or throat, causing pain, difficulty swallowing, a feeling that food gets stuck in the throat or mid-chest area, or a fever. For patients with conditions that weaken the immune system, thrush can spread to other parts of the body, including the lungs, liver, and skin. Systemic candida infection can result in death, a topic for an entirely different article.
At our office we use a specialized tool, VelScope Vx, a non-invasive, blue-light spectrum test, which assists us in diagnosing oral abnormalities including fungal infections like oral thrush. This test along with a visual exam helps us in detecting candida infections. A brush biopsy, a non-invasive biopsy, can confirm the infection. At that point, treatment can be determined.
Thrush that extends into your esophagus may require other tests to make the diagnosis.
The following can help you prevent thrush:
- Follow good oral hygiene practices. Brush your teeth at least twice a day and floss at least once a day. It is also helpful to purchase a tongue scraper. Many patients tell me they brush their tongue but this does not get the candida and bacteria off your tongue it just moves it around. (You may be amazed how much stuff you can get off your tongue when you scrape it!)
- Avoid mouthwashes or sprays. These products can destroy the normal balance of microorganisms in your mouth. Many mouthwashes contain alcohol. Alcohol dries the tissue in your mouth which will cause dry mouth, which makes you more susceptible to thrush.
- See your dentist regularly, especially if you have diabetes or wear dentures. Your dentist can screen you with the Velscope test. Also, some patients believe they no longer need to see their dentist once they receive dentures. This is not true because it is still important to have the tissue in your mouth examined for infection and oral cancer.
- Limit the amount of sugar and yeast-containing foods you eat. Foods such as bread, beer, and wine encourage candida growth.
- If you smoke, quit. Ask your doctor or dentist about ways to help you kick the habit.
For more information ask your doctor or dentist. They will be able to determine if you have thrush and give you options in the treatment of it. There are holistic and over-the-counter treatments of thrush but prior to beginning these treatments it is best to get confirmation that there is a candida overgrowth.