Poor oral hygiene in the mentally ill: Be aware of the problem, and intervene

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Poor oral health is common among mentally ill people and is related to inadequate nutrition, poor self-care, substance abuse, and medication side effects.1 Poor oral hygiene is a significant problem because it results in dental pathol­ogy that has an adverse influence on the whole body.

Compared with the general population, mentally ill patients are 3 times more likely to have their teeth removed.2 In a survey of mentally ill adults, 92% were found to have tooth decay—of which 23% were untreated and 40% smoked tobacco.3 Approximately 9% have periodontal disease, which most often occurs in those who smoke cigarettes.4

Lifestyle contributors
Drug abuse
facilitates dental diseases, as evidenced by the high rate of caries among methamphetamine users.5 The drug induces xerostomia, encouraging users to drink sweetened beverages; this, combined with limited oral care, results in profound dental decay (“meth mouth”). Oral cocaine users often exhibit dental ero­sions or abrasions, gingival lacerations or necrosis, and mucosal lesions. Smoking Cannabis is associated with an increased rate of gingivitis, alveolar bone loss, leu­koplakia, and oral papilloma or other can­cers.5 Heroin users are at increased risk of tooth decay, periodontal disease, and oral infection.5

Alcohol consumption increases the risk of oral cancer. Long-term alcohol use sup­presses bone marrow function, causing leukopenia and resulting in immunosup­pression and an increased incidence of dental infections.6 Excessive alcohol con­sumption also can cause thrombocytope­nia and bleeding, which can complicate dental procedures.

Smoking cigarettes increases the inci­dence of periodontal disease, especially necrotizing gingivitis and candidiasis.7 Ninety percent of patients with schizo­phrenia smoke—compared with up to 70% of patients with other psychiatric disor­ders, and 19% of the general population.7,8 Physiologic aspects of schizophrenia rein­force the smoking habit.7

Somatic ailments. Psychiatric disorders are strongly associated with diabetes, obe­sity, hypertension, stroke, heart disease, and arthritis, all of which contribute to oral pathology. Older age, greater dysfunction, longer duration of illness, and smoking are predictors of adverse dental outcomes.

Anxiety, depression, stress—all of these these disorders increase the circulating level of cortisol, thus raising the risk that peri­odontal disease will progress.9 Periodontitis increases the risk of stroke and heart attack by accelerating atherosclerotic plaque for­mation.10 Depression, anxiety, and substance abuse can lead to temporomandibular disor­ders that cause pain and restrict jaw move­ment.11 Stressed patients may experience muscle tension and bruxism, which can lead to temporomandibular joint discomfort.

Eating disorders. Patients who induce vomiting may exhibit enamel erosions (especially on the anterior maxillary teeth), increased tooth hypersensitivity, decay, and wear on dental restorative work.

Atypical odontalgia, characterized by chronic, burning pain in teeth and gums, is associated with depression and anxiety.11 Misdiagnosis can result in extractions or procedures without an appropriate indica­tion and failure to alleviate the pain.

Medication side effects. Xerostomia can increase the risk for caries, periodontal disease, and oral infections such as candi­diasis, glossitis, stomatitis, and parotitis.9 Extrapyramidal side effects (tardive dyski­nesia, dystonia) may cause tooth damage and make managing dentures difficult.6

What to tell patients, and what you can do for them
Encourage your patients to reduce their sugar intake, brush and floss regularly, and work to stop smoking or ingesting sub­stances of abuse. Teach appropriate hygiene and nutrition, which reduces the risk of den­tal caries, infection, and related problems. Recommend periodic oral health screening and how to secure such dental care.

From your position of familiarity with patients’ psychopharmacotherapy, make an effort to personalize and adjust their regimens when dental disease is present to address concerns about oral health that can be caused by medication side effects.

A multidisciplinary approach with patient advocacy, involving you and the patient’s dentist and primary care physi­cian, facilitates health care and works to offer the patient access to global medical services.

The authors report no financial relationships with any company whose products are mentioned in this article or with manufacturers of competing products.

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