Why changing your alcohol habits will have long-term benefits for your oral health
Whether you’re officially taking part in Dry January or just cutting back on your alcohol consumption this New Year, you probably had your own set of reasons for doing so. Perhaps you were fed up of constantly feeling groggy, or maybe it’s part of a New Year health-kick to detox and reduce your waistline. For others, it’s to save a few pennies or to just enjoy completing a challenge. But did you know the benefits it can have on your oral health too?
Our Chief Dental Officer, Henry Clover, explains the different ways in which alcohol can affect your oral health, and why adjusting your habits can provide long-term benefits.
Increased risk of mouth cancer
“Excessive alcohol consumption is a significant risk factor associated with mouth cancer,” explains Henry. “It’s very easy to exceed the recommended maximum units of alcohol each week, and many people don’t realise they could be putting themselves at risk.”
The UK Chief Medical Officers’ guideline for both men and women is not to drink more than 14 units of alcohol a week on a regular basis. During a recent survey, we discovered that more than one in ten people (12%) consume above the recommended weekly maximum units of alcohol.* Worryingly, in the same survey, less than half of people (43%) know that alcohol is linked to an increased risk of mouth cancer.
“Many adults get into the habit of regularly drinking a couple of large glasses of wine or beer of an evening, not realising how much they’re consuming,” says Henry. “For example, one large glass of wine is three units of alcohol, so over the course of a week, one glass per night would add up to 21 units, which exceeds the recommended weekly limit of 14 units. If you have two large glasses a night, this would be 42 units – three times the weekly recommended guidelines.
“For many people, making a note of how many units they’re consuming each week is helpful to avoid exceeding the weekly limits. Small but important steps like this can help to reduce the risk of mouth cancer, and provide long-term benefits beyond Dry January.”
Alcohol Change UK have a useful online calculator to work out how much you’re drinking: https://alcoholchange.org.uk/alcohol-facts/unit-calculator
Tooth decay and acid erosion
“Many alcoholic drinks are acidic and full of sugar, which can have a significant impact on tooth enamel,” says Henry. “Tooth enamel, which is the protective outer white layer on our teeth, is softer after being exposed to acid and can wear away over time. Exposure to sugar also puts you at risk of tooth decay, and we also know that alcohol dehydrates the body, which means that there is reduced saliva flow in our mouths. Saliva is important because it protects our teeth from decay by neutralising the acids, so if your mouth is dry, you are at an even higher risk of tooth decay.”
Henry recommends alternating alcoholic drinks with a glass of water to help keep hydrated and to space out the number of alcoholic drinks you’re having.
“Red wine and other dark drinks such as cola, which many people use as a mixer, can stain tooth enamel over time,” says Henry. “A whitening toothpaste can help to keep minor staining under control, and regular visits to your hygienist can help to remove stubborn surface stains.
“In addition, acidic alcoholic drinks such as prosecco can erode tooth enamel, revealing the darker dentine layer underneath. Choosing less acidic drinks can help, as well as adjusting your alcohol habits longer term.”
* Source: Online survey of 2,002 UK adults, conducted by Atomik Research on behalf of the Oral Health Foundation and Simplyhealth Professionals, September 2018