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How stress affects your oral health

Excess stress may give you a headache, a stomach ache or just a feeling of being 'on edge'. But too much stress could also have an adverse effect on your mouth, teeth, gums and overall oral health.

The potential fallout from stress and anxiety that can affect your oral health includes:

  • Mouth sores, including mouth ulcers and cold sores
  • Clenching of teeth and teeth grinding (bruxism)
  • Poor oral hygiene and unhealthy eating routines
  • Periodontal (gum) disease or worsening of existing periodontal disease.

So, how can you prevent these oral health problems?

Mouth sores

Mouth ulcers (aphthous ulcers) are small ulcers with a white or greyish base and bordered in red. They appear inside the mouth, sometimes in pairs or even greater numbers. Although experts are not sure what causes them - it could be immune system problems, bacteria or viruses - they do think that stress, as well as fatigue and allergies, can increase the risk of getting them. Mouth ulcers are not contagious.

Most mouth ulcers disappear in a week to 10 days. For relief from the irritation, try over-the-counter topical anaesthetics, usually in the form of a gel that is applied directly to the ulcer. To reduce irritation, avoid spicy, hot foods or foods with a high acid content, such as tomatoes or citrus fruits.

Cold sores are caused by the Herpes simplex virus and are contagious. They often start with a tingling sensation where the sore is going to appear. Cold sores are fluid-filled blisters that then burst, and usually appear on or around the lips.

Emotional upset can trigger an outbreak. So can a raised temperature, sunburn or skin abrasion.

Because they can be transmitted by touch, avoid kissing or oral sex when cold sores are present. However, children with cold sores do not need to be kept home from nursery or school.

Like mouth ulcers, cold sores often heal on their own in a week or so. Treatment is available, including over-the-counter anti-viral creams such as those containing aciclovir, and prescription antiviral drugs. Ask your doctor or dentist if you could benefit from either. It is important to start treatment as soon as you notice the cold sore developing.

Teeth grinding

Stress may make you clench and grind your teeth - during the day or at night, and often unconsciously. Teeth grinding is also known as bruxism.

If you already clench and grind your teeth, stress could make the habit worse. Grinding your teeth can lead to problems with the temporo-mandibular joint (TMJ), located in front of the ear where the skull and lower jaw meet.

Seek advice from your dentist or doctor about what can be done for the clenching and grinding. Your dentist may recommend a night guard, worn while you sleep, or another appliance to help you stop or minimise the actions.

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