Over the last century and a half millions of people have had a tooth cavity filled with “silver” amalgam. Perhaps you’re one of them. The use of this effective and durable filling has declined in recent years, but only because of the development of more attractive tooth-colored materials.
At the same time there’s another issue that’s been brewing in recent years about this otherwise dependable metal alloy: the inclusion of mercury in amalgam, about half of its starting mixture. Various studies have shown mercury exposure can have a cumulative toxic effect on humans. As a result, you may already be heeding warnings to limit certain seafood in your diet.
So, should you be equally concerned about amalgam fillings — even going so far as to have any existing ones removed?
Before taking such a drastic step, let’s look at the facts. To begin with, not all forms of mercury are equally toxic. The form causing the most concern is called methylmercury, a compound formed when mercury released in the environment combines with organic molecules. This is the form certain large fish like salmon and tuna ingest, which we then ingest when we eat them. Methylmercury can accumulate in the body’s tissues where at high levels it can damage various organ systems.
Dental amalgam, on the other hand, uses elemental mercury. Dentists take it in liquid form and mix it with a powder of other metals like silver, tin and copper to create a pliable paste. After it’s placed in a prepared cavity, the amalgam hardens into a compound in which the mercury interlaces with the other metals and becomes “trapped.”
Although over time the filling may emit trace amounts of mercury vapor, it’s well below harmful levels. You’re more likely to encounter “un-trapped” mercury in your diet than from a dental filling. And scores of studies over amalgam’s 150-year history have produced no demonstrable ill effects due to mercury.
Although it now competes with more attractive materials, amalgam still fills (no pun intended) a necessary role. Dentists frequently use amalgam in less visible back teeth, which encounter higher chewing pressures than front teeth. So, if you already have an amalgam filling or we recommend one to you, relax — you’re really in no danger of mercury poisoning.
Can you have healthy teeth and still have gum disease? Absolutely! And if you don’t believe us, just ask actor David Ramsey. The cast member of TV hits such as Dexter and Arrow said in a recent interview that up to the present day, he has never had a single cavity. Yet at a routine dental visit during his college years, Ramsey’s dentist pointed out how easily his gums bled during the exam. This was an early sign of periodontal (gum) disease, the dentist told him.
“I learned that just because you don’t have cavities, doesn’t mean you don’t have periodontal disease,” Ramsey said.
Apparently, Ramsey had always been very conscientious about brushing his teeth but he never flossed them.
“This isn’t just some strange phenomenon that exists just in my house — a lot of people who brush don’t really floss,” he noted.
Unfortunately, that’s true — and we’d certainly like to change it. So why is flossing so important?
Oral diseases such as tooth decay and periodontal disease often start when dental plaque, a bacteria-laden film that collects on teeth, is allowed to build up. These sticky deposits can harden into a substance called tartar or calculus, which is irritating to the gums and must be removed during a professional teeth cleaning.
Brushing teeth is one way to remove soft plaque, but it is not effective at reaching bacteria or food debris between teeth. That’s where flossing comes in. Floss can fit into spaces that your toothbrush never reaches. In fact, if you don’t floss, you’re leaving about a thirdÂ to half of your tooth surfaces unclean — and, as David Ramsey found out, that’s a path to periodontal disease.
Since then, however, Ramsey has become a meticulous flosser, and he proudly notes that the long-ago dental appointment “was the last we heard of any type of gum disease.”
Let that be the same for you! Just remember to brush and floss, eat a good diet low in sugar, and come in to the dental office for regular professional cleanings.
If you would like more information on flossing or periodontal disease, please contact us today to schedule an appointment for a consultation. You can also learn more by reading the Dear Doctor magazine article “Understanding Gum (Periodontal) Disease.”
As a cancer patient, you know how important radiation and chemotherapy are to overcoming the disease. But these treatments often come at a price to other aspects of your health, including your teeth and gums if the treatment target includes the head or neck regions.
Radiation and chemotherapy are effective because they target and destroy cancer cells. Unfortunately, they may also kill non-cancerous, healthy cells; in the mouth, for example, they can damage the cells in the salivary glands and disrupt their ability to produce adequate saliva flow, leading to xerostomia (dry mouth).
This could seriously affect your teeth’s protective enamel shell. As we eat or drink, our mouth’s pH level can become too acidic. Acid is your enamel’s primary enemy because it causes the minerals in the enamel to soften and dissolve (de-mineralization). Saliva neutralizes acid and replaces much of the enamel’s minerals.
Without adequate saliva flow, the enamel will tend to erode over time. You can further aggravate the situation if you routinely consume acidic foods and drinks, like sipping energy drinks or soda during the day. Once the enamel is gone it can’t be replaced naturally, and the teeth will be in serious danger of tooth decay and eventual loss of function and appearance.
To avoid these consequences you should take steps during cancer treatment to reduce your risk for xerostomia or other unhealthy mouth conditions: limit your consumption of acidic foods and beverages; use mouth rinses to counteract acidity and inhibit bacterial growth; and promote saliva flow through medication.
It may be, though, that enamel erosion and subsequent tooth damage is unavoidable. In this case, you may need to consider restorative options with artificial crowns or other cosmetic enhancements — not only to improve your appearance but also to protect your natural teeth from further damage.
Before considering the latter, you should undergo a complete dental examination to assess your condition and make sure you have adequate bone and gum support, and any dental disease under control. From here, we can go about restoring the attractive smile that may have faded during your battle with cancer.
If you’ve noticed redness or small skin cracks at the corners of your mouth, you may have a common infection known as perleche or angular cheilitis. Depending on its cause, there are ways to treat the redness and skin cracking to lessen your discomfort.
The term perleche comes from the French word “lecher,” meaning to lick. This is derived from the tendency of perleche patients to constantly lick the area to ease irritation; unfortunately, this also helps perpetuate the inflammation. Once the skin is broken the area is commonly infected by yeast called candida albicans.
Initially, perleche may arise from a variety of sources, most of them locally from either inside or around the mouth, although it can be triggered by a general body infection or disease like diabetes or cancer, or vitamin or iron deficiencies. Inside the mouth reduced saliva flow, tissue inflammation under a rarely cleaned denture (denture stomatitis), pressure on the mouth corners caused by a collapsed bite due to missing teeth and similar conditions can elevate the risks for infection. Around the mouth wrinkling or “marionette lines,” deep lines that extend from the mouth to the chin due to aging or environmental exposure, can contribute to crack formation. Drooling during sleep or as a result of orthodontic treatment is also a contributing cause.
The main focus of treatment for perleche is to bring any infection under control. This can be accomplished with a course of oral or topical antifungal (yeast-attacking) medication. If the infection has spread into the mouth or throat we might then prescribe a troche, a small lozenge designed to dissolve, which you would rinse with and then swallow to affect other portions of the mouth. Steroid or zinc oxide ointments applied directly to the skin can control inflammation and serve as a barrier agent with antifungal properties to promote healing.
If the cause is more related to dental problems (ill-fitting dentures or missing teeth), then it’s important to have these addressed and treated. You may also consult a dermatologist for treatments to lessen wrinkling around the mouth that might also contribute to chronic cases of perleche.
If you would like more information on cracked mouth corners, please contact us or schedule an appointment for a consultation. You can also learn more about this topic by reading the Dear Doctor magazine article “Cracked Corners of the Mouth.”
If you've lost a tooth, you have a number of options for replacing it. Perhaps the best choice in terms of lifelikeness and durability is a dental implant.
All implants have the same basic architecture: a titanium metal post imbedded in the jawbone to replace the root; and an abutment, a metal collar that links the post with a lifelike porcelain crown. But implants can vary in how the crown attaches to the abutment and post — either cemented to the abutment or screwed through the abutment to the post.
Either method will permanently secure the crown to the implant. But there are advantages and disadvantages for each.
A screw-retained crown may better facilitate any future repair that might be needed. For a skilled dentist it's a simple matter of removing the screw and then the crown from the abutment. There's less risk of damage to the implant during repairs or crown replacement. Many dentists also prefer screws for crowns placed at the same time they're installing the implant post (a procedure called immediate loading).
The screw access hole, however, could pose a cosmetic problem. Although we can cover it over with tooth-colored filling, it may still be noticeable and unattractive especially for a tooth visible when you smile (in the smile zone). There's also the possibility the porcelain around the access hole could chip.
By contrast, cemented crowns have a smooth, unbroken surface and are aesthetically ideal for smile zone teeth. But the cement could interact poorly with gum and bone tissue in some patients, causing inflammation and possible bone loss.
And unlike screw-retained crowns, cemented crowns are difficult to remove for implant repair. We may have to drill through the crown to access the screw between the abutment and the post, and then repair it cosmetically if we use the same crown. Again, the final result may not be quite as visually appealing.
In the end, it will depend on the implant's location, how your body reacts to the cement or your dentist's preference. In either case, though, you'll have a tooth replacement that's functional, life-like and able to endure for many years to come.
If you would like more information on dental implants, please contact us or schedule an appointment for a consultation. You can also learn more about this topic by reading the Dear Doctor magazine article “How Crowns Attach to Implants.”
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