Don’t be surprised if your nurse or primary care provider wants to take a look in your mouth at your next well-woman exam or prenatal checkup. Experts have known for quite some time that the health of your mouth can be a picture of your overall health.

That’s why the Surgeon General is calling on all primary care providers including nurses to do a quick assessment of a person’s mouth and oral health during routine care. Poor oral health puts you at risk for problems and bad outcomes in pregnancy including preterm birth, diabetes, and respiratory and cardiovascular diseases, say experts at the Institute of Medicine.

Oral cancer is also one of the most common cancers and it typically grows painlessly, spreading quickly before it’s caught. Oral cancer is more common in men than women, and is related to smoking or tobacco use, and excessive alcohol consumption. The good news is that if caught early enough most oral cancers can be treated.

So why wait for your next appointment? Just like with breast self-exam, you can take 2 minutes once a month regularly to assess the health of your head, neck, mouth, lips, teeth, gums, tongue and check for any changes or growths that need follow up with a dentist or your primary healthcare provider.

Understanding Oral Health Problems

The mucous membrane inside your mouth protects you from bacteria and viruses including syphilis, gonorrhea, herpes, HIV, chlamydia and HPV. While it’s less risky to get a sexually transmitted infection from oral sex, it’s still a health risk especially if you don’t have strong and healthy mucous membranes. Your mucous membranes can be damaged by the most common oral disease, periodontal disease, putting you at risk for infection and other health complications.

Half of all people age 30 and older have periodontal disease, which is a deep inflammation of the gums that damages the soft and hard structures that support your teeth.  In its earliest stages, it’s called gingivitis and as it progresses, the gums pull away from the teeth, supporting gum tissue is destroyed and it puts you at risk for losing one or more of your teeth.

More importantly, experts say periodontitis makes a pathway for the more than 150 bacteria that live in your mouth to enter your bloodstream, potentially putting you at risk for heart disease, diabetes, and during pregnancy, preterm labor. Cavities in your teeth further degrade your oral health.

Quick Oral Health Check

To check for changes in your oral health, including precancerous growths, you’re looking for sores that don’t heal within 2 weeks, lumps, thick or unusual tissue, and white, gray or red patches. Make an appointment to see your dentist or your primary healthcare provider if you can answer yes to any of these questions:

Face First: Check the symmetry of your face in a mirror: Has anything changed since your last check? Feel along your neck and jaw line for any swelling, tenderness, discoloration, lumps or bumps.

Look at your Lips: Pull your lower lip down and your upper lip up and fully examine all of the tissue and gums. Do you have any sores or growths anywhere inside or near your mouth that have changed or that don’t heal?

Move to your inner cheeks, tongue and the roof of your mouth: Do you see any white, gray or red patches inside your mouth, including inside your lips, on your gums, tongue or the roof (palate) of your mouth? Any white sores in your mouth need evaluation to rule out cancer. Feel along your upper hard and soft palates for any bumps, lumps, sores or tenderness.

As women age, the hormones estrogen and progesterone continue to affect our overall health. Practicing a regular oral health exam gives you a window into changes in your health that may be underway. Take time to discuss anything unusual you see in your mouth with your nurse.

Protect Your Oral Health

  • Practice good mouth hygiene daily by brushing your teeth and gums with a fluoride toothpaste and flossing
  • Schedule and keep regular dental visits, especially during pregnancy for expecting moms
  • Do a quick oral exam on your mouth at least once a month
  • Eat a healthy diet
  • Never smoke or use tobacco and limit alcohol
  • Use sunscreen

 Oral Health Warning Signs

See your dentist or primary care provider if you have any of these signs or symptoms for more than 2 weeks:

  • A sore, irritation, lump or thick patch in your mouth, lip, or throat
  • A white, gray or red patch in your mouth
  • Feeling as if something is caught in your throat
  • Trouble chewing or swallowing, or moving your jaw or tongue
  • Numbness in any part of your mouth
  • Ear pain without hearing loss

Source: CDC, Nursing for Women’s Health

AWHONN thanks Crest(r) for support for this education.

Nurse & AWHONN CEO Lynn Erdman on Oral Cancer Prevention (video):


Carolyn Davis Cockey, MLS, LCCE, is founding editor of Healthy Mom&Baby, Senior Director of Partnerships & Publications at AWHONN, and a Lamaze-certified childbirth educator in Sarasota, FL.

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