How AIDS affects your mouth

Smiling dentistry patient

If you are HIV-positive, dental health may not be at the top of your mind. But chronic health conditions like HIV and AIDS can put you at risk for certain oral health problems. Some of these conditions can happen to anyone, regardless of HIV status, while other symptoms only show up in people with a compromised immune system. Here’s what you should look out for and how you can protect yourself.


Dry mouth and cavities

Some anti-HIV drugs — and even HIV itself — may be linked to a decrease in saliva. Because saliva helps wash away debris and fight harmful bacteria, dry mouth can increase your risk of developing tooth decay.

Luckily, this common problem is easy to treat. Drink water frequently, and use sugar-free candies or gum to stimulate saliva flow. If dry mouth continues to be a problem, talk to your dentist about artificial saliva products.

Oral lesions

If you have HIV, you may be more likely to develop sores inside and around your mouth. This problem can have different causes.

Raised, white bumps inside the mouth may be caused by the human papillomavirus (HPV). These lesions, which can be smooth, rough or cauliflower-shaped, can be prevented by practicing safe sex and reducing or eliminating your intake of alcohol and tobacco. HPV is linked to oral cancer, so talk to your dentist immediately if you notice any sores matching this description.

Canker sores are another type of oral lesion. These sores, which appear as shallow bumps with red borders, are not dangerous but can make eating uncomfortable. Your doctor may prescribe a rinse or topical medication for canker sores that don’t go away on their own. You can also lower your chances of developing canker sores by using a toothpaste that does not contain sodium lauryl sulfate.

Often mistaken for canker sores, herpes blisters (cold sores) are also common among people with compromised immune systems. Under a weak immune system, these blisters may grow especially large or painful. They appear inside the mouth or around the lips. Cold sores can be treated with antiviral medication.

Thrush

Oral candidiasis, called thrush, is a fungal infection of the mouth. This is common symptom indicating a suppressed immune system, so let your doctor know if you find white patches inside your mouth. Thrush usually appears on the tongue or roof of the mouth, but it can also cause sores at the corners of the lips. Dry mouth can make thrush worse. To treat the condition, your doctor will give you antifungal medication.

Gum disease

Being HIV-positive makes you more likely to develop a specific type of gum inflammation. The first stage is called linear gingival erythema (LGE) and appears as redness along the gum line. This condition, which used to be called “HIV gingivitis,” is common among people with a suppressed immune system. If not caught in time, it can progress to a more severe form of gum disease, which can eventually destroy the gums and bones supporting your teeth.

If you have LGE, ask your dentist about an antimicrobial mouth rinse. And as always, maintain a regular dental hygiene routine: Brush your teeth with fluoride toothpaste twice a day, and floss between all your teeth at least once a day. If you have severe gum disease, your dentist may recommend scaling and root planing or other gum treatments.

Protect yourself against gum disease by brushing up on your dental hygiene skills. Visit the dentist regularly to help catch gum disease early.

Hairy leukoplakia

A strong indicator of HIV, this condition shows up as a white patch on the sides of the tongue. The furry-looking white layer is made of keratin, the same type of cell that forms the skin. Leukoplakia does not cause pain or discomfort, but anti-HIV drugs and regular brushing and flossing can help it disappear.

Related reading

Last updated: December 2016

The oral health information on this web site is intended for educational purposes only. You should always consult a licensed dentist or other qualified health care professional for any questions concerning your oral health.

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