Dentist examining teeth close up

Why it’s time to focus on oral health

The Covid-19 pandemic has changed many aspects of our daily lives – how we work, socialise and how we keep healthy. Much of the latter has focused on maintaining good mental wellbeing and keeping physically active. But one area that’s been pushed to the sidelines is our oral health.

With dentists closed from late March to early June, millions of check-ups were missed, leaving people nursing minor twinges that could’ve since developed into something more serious. With most dentists now open to patients – albeit with much-changed procedures – and November being Mouth Cancer Action Month, it’s time for us to stop keeping our mouths shut about oral health. 

Predicted decline in dental health

Dental health professionals are massively pessimistic about the negative impact of lockdown. In a recent survey of 600 dental practices, a staggering 96% believed it damaged the nation’s oral health, while 88% think the UK’s dental health could decline because of a lack of routine appointments1. On top of this, over three quarters (77%) are worried that missed check-ups will mean the first signs of oral cancers are missed too2– something with potentially devastating consequences considering oral cancers reached record levels in 20193.

Many dentists are also especially concerned for children’s oral health. Half of parents say their children have missed a check-up since March, while almost a third say they chose not to make an appointment4. Just like adults, this can result in a build-up of problems that may well be painful and time-consuming to tackle, not to mention long-lasting and potentially expensive. With tooth decay already the most common reason for hospital admissions for children aged 5 to 95, there are real concerns this number could rise significantly.

The effect of increased snacking and drinking

For some, lockdown provided an opportunity to try to eat more healthily, cook more meals from scratch and shop locally, which can all bring benefits. The flipside is that it’s also seen us reach for more snacks. Many of these contain high levels of sugar which can be extremely harmful to tooth enamel, causing decay. According to research from BiteBack 2030, children are snacking significantly more since lockdown6, while 27% of people admitted they’d had a less healthy diet than before March7. But not only do the sugars found in snacks like biscuits and chocolate contribute significantly to tooth decay, they’re a factor in rising obesity levels, which bring its own potential implications for our health.

We’ve also been drinking more alcohol during lockdown, with around a third of UK adults (35%) admitting to breaking open more booze8. Apart from the obvious effects of drinking more, alcohol also has an extremely high sugar content, so can have a negative impact on oral hygiene.

It’s clear that opting for healthy snacks and drinks can help the mouth and the waistline.

Cost to workplace productivity

While toothache may seem fairly minor, its impact on employees can be anything but. Dealing with a nagging, constant pain can seriously impair someone’s powers of concentration and ability to produce their best work. It can be tempting just to take painkillers and hope the problem goes away, but if it’s not dealt with, it can rapidly become a serious issue. Estimates suggest poor oral health costs the UK economy over £105 million a year, while annually, 5% of employees need time off from work because of oral ill-health9.

Even though over three million of us suffer from regular discomfort in the mouth10, many avoid seeing anyone about it. More than two million adults in the UK haven’t been to the dentist in over 10 years11. But failing to pay close attention to our oral health can have grave consequences.

Regular check-ups don’t just prevent tooth decay, they can identify serious health problems too. As well as spotting the early signs of oral cancer, gum disease is linked to many health issues such as heart disease, Type 2 diabetes, and cancer. A trip to the dentist can ensure these are caught early and treated before they become too severe.

How to keep your mouth healthy

Good oral health is not just about a yearly trip to the dentist. There’s a lot you can do at home to keep your teeth and mouth healthy:

  • Brush your teeth twice a day
    • Brush before you eat breakfast in the morning as tooth enamel is softened by eating. Brushing afterwards can cause damage.
    • Brush before you go to bed to get rid of any food residue in the mouth. Also, less saliva is produced at night, which protects the teeth.
  • Floss regularly – this can have a significant effect on reducing gum disease.
  • Use a fluoride toothpaste – this prevents tooth decay by slowing down the breakdown of enamel.
  • Use mouthwash after brushing – mouthwash not only helps prevents tooth decay, but it also has antiviral properties. Covid-19 can survive in the mouth and throat for around four days, so using a mouthwash now makes more sense than ever. If you run out of mouthwash, dissolving a teaspoon of salt in half a cup of warm water can be used instead.
  • Cut down on sugary snacks between meals and try and limit the amount of food you eat with added refined sugar.
  • Take vitamin D supplements – the body produces vitamin D naturally when directly exposed to sunlight. As we move into the winter months with shorter, colder days, we get less vitamin D. Taking a supplement helps boost the immune system, enabling our bodies to better fight viruses and bacteria. It’s especially recommended at the moment to help fight Covid-19. There is also some evidence to suggest the vitamin can help strengthen tooth enamel.

With so much to think about at the moment, it’s easy to forget the simple things.

Spending just a few minutes every day looking after your teeth and mouth and passing on these good habits on to your children, can be one of the most important things you do.


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