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Oral Pathology And 4 Common Oral Diseases

According to the American Dental Association, there are currently twelve dental specialties recognized by the National Commission on Recognition of Dental Specialties and Certifying Boards (try saying that ten times fast). The specialty that focuses on diseases in and around your mouth is called oral pathology. If you're curious about this discipline, we'll let you know what oral pathologists do and tell you about four of the many diseases these dental professionals have become experts in so they can provide the best possible treatment to help keep people smiling.

What is Oral Pathology?

Oral pathology is the study, diagnosis, and treatment of diseases in the teeth, gums, bones, joints, glands, skin, and muscles around your mouth. The American Dental Education Association states that Oral Pathologists require 37 months of advanced education on average to become experts in this field.

Four common diseases oral pathologists diagnose and treat in their patients include:

Herpes Simplex Virus Type 1

If you have fever blisters or cold sores in your mouth, you may have herpes simplex virus type 1 (HSV-1). It's highly contagious and so common that, according to the Cleveland Clinic, over half the US population has HSV-1. It can be spread through saliva from sharing utensils, beverages, lip balm, or kissing. It can even be spread from skin-to-skin contact, and you do not need to be showing symptoms to spread it.

The symptoms of HSV-1 tend to be most noticeable when it's first contracted and include:

  • A tingling, burning, or itching sensation on or around your lips
  • Red, swollen, and painful blisters on your lips, face, or tongue (but they can appear anywhere on your skin and inside your mouth)
  • Sores on your genitalia (this is more typically a symptom of HSV-2, but HSV-1 can cause genital sores from oral sex)

Most people get HSV-1 as children, but you can contract it at any age. There is no treatment for HSV-1 as the sores tend to go away on their own. If you have this virus and are experiencing a sensitivity level that concerns you, speak to your healthcare professional to see if they recommend any antiviral creams or medications to ease your discomfort.

Candidiasis (Thrush)

Oral thrush is a fungal overgrowth that can cause red bumps and white patches inside your mouth. Treatment includes addressing the health condition that caused it as well as the use of antifungal medication. You have an increased risk of oral thrush infection if you have:

  • Diabetes
  • Weakened immunity
  • If you wear dentures or have conditions that cause dry mouth
  • And if you take certain medications like prednisone, inhaled corticosteroids, or antibiotics that disturb the natural balance of microorganisms in your body

According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), oral thrush is the most common fungal infection there is, and other symptoms you may experience in addition to red spots may include: 

  • Cottonmouth
  • Loss of taste
  • Pain when eating or swallowing
  • And cracking and redness at the corners of your mouth

Black Hairy Tongue

This condition is exactly what it sounds like. It causes your tongue to look like it is growing black hair (don't worry, it's not.) What actually happens is that dead skin cells collect on the papillae (small bumps formed by mucous membrane cells that make up the tongue's surface), and this makes them longer than their normal length (most papillae are about 1-millimeter long according to the American Academy of Oral Medicine. These long papillae are more easily stained by substances you consume, resulting in the black coloring. Other possible symptoms you may experience with this condition are:

  • Change in taste
  • Bad breath
  • The long papillae may also cause a tickling or gagging sensation

Although black hairy tongue doesn't sound like much fun, the good news is that it's harmless and easily remedied by eliminating possible contributing factors (like smoking) and practicing good oral hygiene.

Oral Cancer

In 2021, the American Cancer Society estimates the prevalence of oral cancers (oral cavity & pharynx) to be about 54,010 cases and 10,850 deaths for the year. The primary cause is HPV, followed by smoking and heavy alcohol consumption, so a significant portion of the pain and suffering of these oral cancers are preventable. In fact, according to the World Health Organization (WHO), 30-50% of all cancers are preventable by doing things like:

  • Avoiding tobacco products
  • Drinking alcohol in moderation
  • Limiting processed meats in your diet
  • Maintaining a healthy weight
  • Protecting yourself from the sun
  • Vaccinating yourself against HPV
  • Practicing safe sex
  • Not sharing needles
  • Performing regular oral self-exams
  • Visiting with your doctor, dentist, and dental hygienist regularly for checkups
  • And practicing good oral hygiene

If you notice an unusual sore or lump anywhere in your mouth, don't wait for your next appointment. Visit your dental professional as soon as possible.

Thanks to oral pathologists' expertise and continual advancements in the field, more is being discovered about diseases that affect the mouth all the time. Many conditions are being diagnosed and treated faster and better than ever before. If you're experiencing any oral conditions that concern you, visit your dental professional. If you have a disease, oral pathology will help you get your oral health back to a condition you can smile about.

This article is intended to promote understanding of and knowledge about general oral health topics. It is not intended to be a substitute for professional advice, diagnosis or treatment. Always seek the advice of your dentist or other qualified healthcare provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition or treatment.

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