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8 Tips for Preventing HIV Gum, Teeth, and Oral Problems

Updated on December 27, 2022
Medically reviewed by
Barry S. Zingman, M.D.
Article written by
Marnie Willman

Between 30 percent and 80 percent of people living with human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) have oral problems of some kind. If you do too, you’re not alone.

HIV can destroy immune cells that normally fight off oral diseases and infections, which can significantly impact immune system function. Oral problems can also reduce your self-confidence when they affect your appearance, and they can negatively impact your overall health.

Members of myHIVteam know about the struggle of keeping up with oral hygiene. In their own words:

  • “I went to the dentist today. … They have to pull a few bottom teeth and said I have periodontal disease.”
  • “Big accomplishment today! … I was able to brush my teeth without pain after developing ‘trench mouth’ around 16.”
  • “I clean my teeth a lot, but the dentist says I developed periodontal disease.”
  • “I have an infection from gum surgery I just had.”

Do you struggle with dental health while living with HIV? The good news is, there are some solutions and tips for tackling oral hygiene problems. You can implement many of these changes without drastically changing your lifestyle.

1. Learn About the Mouth Issues Related to HIV

According to the American Dental Association, people living with HIV may experience these oral health care issues:

  • Dry mouth
  • Thrush (a fungal infection)
  • Mouth ulcers
  • Oral cancer
  • Canker sores
  • Gingivitis
  • Gum disease
  • Ulcerative periodontitis

Many of these conditions cause discomfort and pain, and they can stick around for a long time.

Between 8 percent and 18 percent of children living with HIV/AIDS also experience swelling of their salivary glands. This can cause dry mouth and other problems if it persists.

Oral health conditions which are greater risks for those living with HIV include:

  • Herpes virus
  • Kaposi’s sarcoma
  • Oral HPV
  • Oral hairy leukoplakia

To read more about these conditions, what causes them, and how they’re treated, take a look at the National HIV Curriculum’s informative list.

2. See Your Dentist Often

See your dentist or hygienist often for regular cleanings and inspections. If you don’t have a regular dentist, your doctor or health care provider can often recommend one.

When it comes to questions about your oral health, you should always seek advice from your doctor or dentist first. They know your medical background and can provide you with clear, medically sound advice on where to go next. Many of the oral conditions in this article can look alike, and it can be hard to determine what you have by looking at photos online. Talk to your doctor or dentist about the best treatment for you.

3. Brush and Floss Daily

Maintain your oral health by flossing and brushing your teeth for approximately two minutes twice every day — or after every meal. You should use:

  • A toothbrush with strong bristles
  • Strong dental floss so you can get right to the base of your teeth
  • Toothpaste that contains fluoride
  • Mouthwash that can kill harmful bacteria

Ask your dentist about the best products for you.

4. Take a Closer Look at Your Mouth

You should also regularly (at least once a month) check your tongue, lips, gums, cheeks, and the roof of your mouth for signs of discoloration, sores, bumps, or other lesions.

To treat conditions such as sores, bumps, or discoloration, your doctor or dentist may recommend:

  • Mouthwash or a mouth rinse solution to combat harmful oral bacteria
  • Corticosteroid cream to treat canker sores or ulcers
  • Antiviral pills to reduce healing time for symptoms of herpes infection
  • Antifungal pills, lozenges, or mouthwash
  • Minor surgery or cryosurgery to freeze or remove warts or other growths

5. Take Your HIV Medication

Make sure you always take your HIV medication on time. Treatment of HIV is vital to preventing oral issues. According to the University of Illinois Chicago College of Dentistry, advancements in antiretroviral therapy (ART) for HIV have improved oral problems associated with the condition. Talk about your treatment plan with your doctor or health care team to ensure your ART is tailored to your needs.

6. Eat Healthy Foods

Prevent oral health problems by eating healthy foods like fresh fruit and vegetables, and avoiding food and drinks that are high in sugar. Sugar can contribute to cavities and other tooth decay and gum problems.

7. Prevent Dry Mouth

Having dry mouth can lead to gum disease and tooth decay. The National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research recommends the following actions to keep your mouth hydrated:

  • Use a humidifier in your bedroom at night to avoid overly dry air.
  • Sip water, tea, or other sugar-free drinks often throughout the day.
  • Suck on sugar-free candies or chew sugar-free gum.
  • Do not use alcohol or tobacco.
  • Avoid dry, salty foods like nuts, chips, and crackers.

8. Find Affordable Dental Care

It’s not legal for a dental clinic to refuse care because you’re HIV-positive. But depending on where you live and your insurance coverage and financial resources, it can be difficult to find care. Approximately 58 percent to 64 percent of people living with HIV or AIDS do not get routine oral care.

Prevention is key to avoiding oral hygiene problems. Here are three options if you’re in a situation that makes finding a dentist difficult:

  • Find a Ryan White CARE Act-funded dental clinic, which provides no- or low-cost dental care in the U.S. There may be a waitlist, but several myHIVteam members have had success using this program.
  • See if a nearby dental school provides work at a reduced rate.
  • Use a community-based primary care clinic, which can provide treatment at no or low cost. Your local health department can help you find the closest resource to you.

Your oral health is part of HIV self-care. Maintaining a healthy mouth is vital for you to feel good and stay healthy.

Are you feeling your best with HIV? Take the quiz.

Talk With Others Who Understand

On myHIVteam, the social network for people living with HIV and their loved ones, more than 35,000 members come together to ask questions, give advice, and share their stories with others who understand life with HIV.

Are you living with HIV and struggling to care for your teeth or prevent oral health problems? Share your experience in the comments below, or start a conversation by posting on your Activities page.

All updates must be accompanied by text or a picture.
Barry S. Zingman, M.D. specializes in HIV/AIDS medicine and general infectious disease. Review provided by VeriMed Healthcare Network. Learn more about him here.
Marnie Willman is a Ph.D. candidate in medical microbiology and infectious diseases at the University of Manitoba. Learn more about her here.

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