A new term has been floating around dentist offices across the country.
“Mask mouth” is used to describe the oral side effects of wearing a face covering for an extended time.
Colgate lists on its website the potential harmful outcomes of prolonged mask wear, which can include dry mouth, bad breath, tooth decay and gum disease.
Joseph Weber, dentist at Weber Dental in Gainesville, said over the past several months he has witnessed a 20-25% increase in cavities among his patients, even those who make regular appointments and take considerable care of their teeth. He sees people ages 3 to 109, and most of his patients are over 45.
Weber says he has linked the recent uptick in oral issues to prolonged mask wearing. He said face coverings cause most people to breathe through their mouth.
“It can lead to dry mouth,” he said. “What happens then is, we have the plaque or the tartar that’s on our teeth, and then acid will set in. That in the mouth increases the cavity and gum disease.”
Weber explained that people’s saliva acts as a natural cleanser for their teeth and can help hamper the formation of tartar and plaque. So, the drier the mouth, the less protection from tooth decay and gum infection.
When people try to quench their dry mouth, Weber said they tend to gravitate toward hard candy or sugary acidic beverages.
“We’ve had people come in with cavities across three to four teeth on one side,” he added. “Also, unfortunately a lot of the population already have dry mouth due to certain drugs they take, their age or a medical condition, and so they’ve already got dry mouth and they’re getting more. It just leads to a lot of damage to the patient’s mouth.”
Ben Hawkins, dentist of Hawkins Family Dental in Gainesville, said he hasn’t seen an increase in cavity rates with his patients. But, if people are getting “dry mouth” from their mask wearing, he said it would make sense to see more cases of tooth decay over the next year or two.
“If you have a healthy tooth with full thickness enamel, and all of a sudden get dry mouth, it’s not like you’ll get a cavity this month,” Hawkins said. “It has to be chronic dry mouth. If you’ve already got demineralized enamel, then you start wearing a mask, you might accelerate that process.”
Sally Evans-Hatcher, dentist at Lanier Dental Group, said she has not witnessed an uptick in cavities or gum issues with her patients recently, nor has she found any firm scientific proof that connects mask wearing to negative oral side effects.
However, the dentist said she has seen a 15-20% increase in stress-induced dental issues over the past several months. Hawkins also noted that he has recently noticed more “structural dental diseases related to stress.”
These types of issues include fractured teeth, gum recession and temporomandibular joint dysfunction, which involves pain of the jaw joint and surrounding muscles.
Evans-Hatcher said at least one patient a day comes to her dentistry with a fractured tooth, and she has been prescribing more muscle relaxers than usual for jaw soreness.
For those who have stress-related issues with their teeth or jaw, Evans-Hatcher recommends wearing a mouth guard made by a dentist — also known as a bruxism appliance — at night to help prevent damage caused by clenching and grinding.
“Most of the clenching and grinding happens when the brain is sleeping and can’t tell your body to loosen up on pressure,” she said.
Tips to better prevent side effects of dry mouth
Masks are still highly recommended by both local and national health officials to prevent the spread of COVID-19. While the pandemic continues, Weber said he offers his patients several tips for preventing the negative effects of dry mouth.
Don’t wear a mask alone or alone in cars.
Brush your teeth longer with fluoridated or baking soda toothpaste.
Floss every day.
Rinse your mouth with Listerine, and before you spit it out, take a toothbrush with no toothpaste on it and brush your teeth.
Drink more water.
Consider visiting your dentist every three to four months.
“Bacteria that’s in our mouth, we’ve proven that it gets pretty toxic after three months or 90 days,” Weber said. “If we can get there and clean it off, that helps decrease the chance for cavities and gum disease.”
If people find themselves breathing with their mouth when wearing a mask, Hawkins encourages them to “to make it a habit to continue breathing through your nose.”