Prepare for cold temperatures

31 December 2020
2 min read

Maxwell O’Neill discusses how you can look after your oral health over winter.

The drier air, whipping winds and freezing temperatures of the winter months are just ahead of us. As we know, viral infections such as colds and flu are more common during the winter. Heated indoor environments with limited ventilation make it easier for germs to spread. Furthermore, the immune system becomes supressed in cold weather as blood flow is focused on the core of the body.

Naturally, the temperature and humidity of our immediate surroundings affect the body’s core temperature, yet age, infection, the intake of medication and even telling lies can also play a part. Since the outbreak of coronavirus, both dental professionals and patients have become familiar with temperature screening protocols to prevent the transmission of Covid-19. But how do cold temperatures influence the nation’s oral health?

The temperature of the mouth varies considerably over a 24-hour period. Simply breathing and routine activities such as speaking, sleeping, eating, drinking and exercising cause the temperature within the oral cavity to fluctuate.

Just like other materials, the teeth expand and contract as they change in temperature. As the teeth adjust, small cracks can emerge that do not normally affect the tooth structure but can cause discomfort, particularly if the patient has metal fillings, which expand and contract more rapidly than natural teeth. Additionally, if the tooth enamel is worn away and the dentine and nerves are exposed to the elements, the teeth can become sensitive. Patients can use a layer of clothing to form a barrier over the mouth when going outside in very cold temperatures in order to reduce discomfort. However, adopting good daily oral hygiene, not brushing too aggressively and avoiding foods and drinks that have erosive qualities are recommended.

As dental professionals are aware, cold, dry air can speed up the dehydration process and inhibit the mouth’s ability to fight bacterial infection. When saliva flow is low, harmful bacteria can proliferate, increasing the risk of tooth decay and gingivitis as well as oral malodour. Reminding patients to avoid smoking, caffeine and alcohol but to drink plenty of water or chew sugar free gum, will help to prevent the mouth from drying out. The cold weather can also cause dry, chapped lips as well as the ideal environment for cold sores to develop. Patients should be advised to moisturise the lips and skin around the mouth regularly, to keep stress levels down and get plenty of sleep to prevent breakouts. Most importantly, however, frequent hand washing to prevent and protect from viruses and bacteria should never be underestimated.

The winter season brings celebrations including Christmas, Hanukkah and New Year with indulgent, sugary temptations. Nevertheless, frequent snacking on festive foods or constantly sipping sweetened drinks increases the amount of time the teeth are subjected to harmful acids, heightening the risk of tooth decay.

To protect the teeth and prevent oral health issues, patients should be encouraged to eat a balanced diet that includes whole grains and dairy products, as well as fresh fruit and vegetables. They should take measures to maintain a healthy flow of saliva and practise good oral hygiene. Brushing twice a day with a fluoride toothpaste and flossing daily, for example with the Waterpik Water Flosser, ensures that food debris is rinsed away and plaque from between the teeth and below the gum line is effectively removed.

It has been a strange year for everyone but by educating and preparing your patients for the cold temperatures, you can play a vital role in keeping them in good health this winter and beyond.

References available upon request.