Brushing and flossing are critical for good oral health for all people. Overall, women tend to take better care of their teeth than men. But despite this, men often have better oral health than women. Gender-based research has shown that part of the problem is the changing levels of hormones throughout a woman’s life.
Gender related differences in oral health start early in life. At puberty, girls are three times more likely to have gingivitis or gum infections than boys. This may be due in part to increased levels of the sex hormones progesterone and estrogen. These hormones can cause an increase in blood flow to the gums, which can make gums more sensitive and more likely to react to irritation from food particles and plaque.
Plaque is a layer of bacteria and minerals that accumulate on teeth, especially along the gum line. Over time, plaque becomes hard and sticks to the surface of teeth. It can cause irritation to gums and can damage the tooth surface. In addition, bacteria from plaque can travel to other parts of the body and cause infections.
Saliva or spit is critical to good oral health. It helps protect hard and soft tissues in the mouth by removing food particles and other waste and acts to protect the mouth against bacteria and other agents that can cause infection. Saliva helps maintain a balance within the mouth which reduces infection and protects teeth and gums.
Monthly changes in hormone levels around a woman’s period can affect the chemical composition of saliva by increasing the amount of glucose or sugar in the mouth. This can promote the growth of bacteria and tooth decay and can also cause monthly bouts of gingivitis or gum infections. This typically happens just before the start of a woman’s period and may cause bright red, swollen, or bleeding gums as well as sores on the inside of the cheeks.
Women who are pregnant may have a higher risk of gingivitis around their second or third month of pregnancy. Gums may become swollen and may develop lumps that can look like tumors. Poor oral health during pregnancy may make women at risk for preterm or low birth-weight babies. In addition, acid associated with morning sickness can cause increased tooth decay during pregnancy.
Women in their childbearing years who use oral contraceptives may also be at higher risk of gingivitis over time due to hormones in the pill. Oral contraceptives can also cause complications after having a tooth removed including dry socket. On the plus side, oral contraceptives can make saliva more acidic, which can help prevent bad breath.
Hormone changes at the time of menopause can cause pain and burning in the mouth. Some women also find their sense of taste changes at this time in their lives. Osteoporosis is a condition that causes bones to become brittle and easier to break. This condition can also cause bone loss in the gums that will lead to loose teeth later in life.
In general, women need to be aware of their oral and dental health at all stages of life. Regular appointments for tooth X-rays and cleaning can catch problems early and help prevent tooth decay and other oral health problems.
Legato, Marianne J., M.D. Eve’s Rib New York: Harmony Books, 2002. Print.
Reviewed June 16, 2011
Edited by Alison Stanton