Dental Professionals: How Much Do They Need to Know About You?

Does your dentist or dental hygienist ask you these questions:  Do you smoke? If so, do you drink while smoking? …How much do you drink? …Do you have more than one sexual partner?

Possible conversation:

‘Uhhh, why do you need to know about my sexual partners?!?!?  I find that an invasion of my privacy.’

‘For the same reason I need to know about your smoking and drinking habits: Risk factors for oral cancer.  However, if you are uncomfortable with providing these answers, know that oral cancer is a possibility in people who do these things. ‘

At least the education is happening, whether the questions were answered honestly or at all.

According to a recent article published in the UK, dentists/dental hygienists should be aware of a patients’ potential risk factors for oral cancer.  If a patient says, ‘yes’ to all of the above, the dental professional may look a little more closely when doing an oral cancer screening.

What do sexual practices have to do with oral cancer?  There is an association between oral cancer and the Human Papilloma Virus (HPV), which is transmitted via oral sex.  One of the strains of HPV that causes cervical cancer, causes oral cancer.  The symptoms are difficulty swallowing, a persistently scratchy throat, a hoarse voice, a non-tender lump in the neck, or a redness or irregularity on one tonsil and not the other.  HPV related oral cancers are most often at the back of the throat and base of the tongue.  A dentist should refer to an ENT for further diagnosis.  If the problem persists, go to another ENT for a second opinion and don’t wait!

In the United Kingdom, it is predicted that 9,200 cases of oral cancer will be diagnosed each year by 2030, compared with 6,240 in 2009 and 3,030 in 1984.  Death rates are also expected to rise by around 22 per cent over the next two decades.  The cause?  The association of the oral cancer and tobacco is decreasing while the cause from HPV is on the rise.  The numbers are similar in the United States.

I read comments on the article from the readers of the paper, and most were opposed to the personal interrogation. I agree with the article that the information would be helpful and will encourage dental professionals to take an extra careful look in patients who are at a higher risk for HPV.

Afterall, it’s all about education!  The more we know, the earlier we can catch it.  Early detection is the key.

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