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We’ve come a long way since the early 1980s when we first identified the HIV virus. Although approximately 35 million people worldwide (including a million Americans) now have the virus, many are living relatively long and normal lives thanks to advanced antiretroviral drugs.
Still, HIV patients must remain vigilant about their health, especially their oral health. In fact, problems with the teeth, gums and other oral structures could be a sign the virus has or is moving into the full disease stage, acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS). That’s why you or a loved one with the virus should maintain regular dental checkups or see your dentist when you notice any oral abnormalities.
One of the most common conditions among HIV-positive patients is a fungal infection called candidiasis (or “thrush”). It may appear first as deep cracks at the corners of the mouth and then appear on the tongue and roof of the mouth as red lesions. The infection may also cause creamy, white patches that leave a reddened or bleeding surface when wiped.
HIV-positive patients may also suffer from reduced salivary flow. Because saliva helps neutralize excess mouth acid after we eat as well as limit bacterial growth, its absence significantly increases the risk of dental disease. One of the most prominent for HIV-positive patients is periodontal (gum) disease, a bacterial infection normally caused by dental plaque.
While gum disease is prevalent among people in general, one particular form is of grave concern to HIV-positive patients. Necrotizing ulcerative periodontitis (NUP) is characterized by spontaneous gum bleeding, ulcerations and a foul odor. The disease itself can cause loosening and eventually loss of teeth, but it’s also notable as a sign of a patient’s deteriorating immune system. The patient should not only undergo dental treatment (including antibiotics), but also see their primary care physician for updates in treating and managing their overall symptoms.
Above all, HIV-positive patients must be extra diligent about oral hygiene, including daily brushing and flossing. Your dentist may also recommend other measures like saliva stimulators or chlorhexidine mouthrinses to reduce the growth of disease-causing bacteria. Together, you should be able to reduce the effects of HIV-induced teeth and gum problems for a healthier mouth and better quality of life.