A recent study in the Royal College of Surgeon’s Dental Journal makes the argument that dentists should screen patients for signs of alcoholism. In the UK, an estimated 1 in 5 men and 1 in 7 women regularly binge-drink. This sort of excessive alcohol usage, claims the study, has been linked to a number of oral diseases including cancers of the mouth, larynx, pharynx and oesophagus. Moreover, patients who drink heavily also tend to suffer from tooth decay and erosion of the tooth surface.
But the study doesn’t stop there. Dentists, say the researchers, have a responsibility to promote not only the oral health of their patients but also their general wellbeing. Excessive alcohol consumption can be dangerous on many levels of individual health. Patients may be injured from falls and traffic accidents after drinking too much. Alcoholism abuse also increases patient risk of developing depression, liver disease, high blood pressure and heart damage.
Alcohol use screenings promoted by the study would mark an interesting expansion in the role of the dentist and dental hygienist. Historically, dental check-ups have been primarily used to detect cavities and tooth decay. Recently, however, the lines between oral and overall health have blurred. For instance, diabetes has been cited as a cause for gum inflammation and poor healing of oral tissues. Gastroesophagel reflux disease, hearthburn and acid reflux are known to result in tooth enamel loss and the development of cavities. Eating disorders such as anorexia and bulimia are also known causes of tooth erosion and problems in saliva production.
With all these connections between oral health and general individual health, the dentist’s role may naturally evolve to include many preventative health care measures. Already, dentists screen for oral cancer at each patient check-up. Whether alcoholism screenings become part of the regular check-up as well will probably depend on further research. With heavy alcohol consumption on the rise in the United States, dentists may find themselves on the frontlines of national alcohol health care efforts.