Know How Winter Weather Affects Your Oral Health

February 15, 2018

Portrait of a woman feeling cold in winter - outdoors.jpeg

Depending on where you live, you may be halfway through the cold season, or you may have four or more months left. Either way, you’ve already had some time to enjoy the crisp winter weather, and (for many of us) time to wish it was over, too.

While doing things like bundling up in a heavy coat, gloves, and hats becomes second nature as we move through the winter, many people don’t think about the impact the cold, dry winter weather has on their oral health. There are actually a number of conditions or symptoms that can appear or become more pronounced during the winter, so it’s worth considering, especially if you’ve noticed any unusual discomfort since temperatures have dropped.

What’s different in the wintertime?

The most obvious challenge facing your oral health in the colder months is the lower temperature and drier air that can last for months on end. Like most rigid materials, your tooth enamel expands and contracts with changes in temperature. And, with less moisture in the air, it’s easier to become dehydrated, which can have a serious impact on the state of your mouth.

A factor that’s fairly common, but not often considered, is the effect of Seasonal Affective Disorder (aka SAD or Seasonal Depression) This common ailment may be related to a lack of sunlight, less social connection, or other physical factors, but it can impact oral health as well.

Common cold weather oral health challenges

Based on the issues described above, the following oral health challenges can all manifest during the cold winter months:

"There are actually a number of conditions or symptoms that can appear or become more pronounced during the winter, so it’s worth considering, especially if you’ve noticed any unusual discomfort since temperatures have dropped."

  • Tooth pain/sensitivity - Many people have sensitive teeth and experience sharp pain when eating very hot or cold foods. Tooth pain and sensitivity in cold weather creates a similar reaction, but for a different reason:
    As you move from the warmth of a building or vehicle into very cold air, your teeth will tend to contract (shrink, microscopically) which puts pressure on the nerves and pulls teeth away from the gums and underlying bone. In most cases, this is just momentarily uncomfortable, but in extreme cases, it’s even resulted in fractures and tooth loss.
    The best option to protect your teeth is to keep your mouth closed and breathe through your nose when making these temperature transitions, and wear a scarf or mask that can help warm the air entering your mouth if the temperature is extremely cold.
  • Dry mouth (xerostomia) - This is a fairly common condition, especially for seniors and others who take a lot of prescription drugs. In the winter, however, it becomes even more common because the air is so much drier, which speeds up dehydration.
    This is a problem because your mouth’s ability to fight bacterial infection depends largely on being regularly rinsed with adequate saliva. Moisture lubricates all of your oral functions, and helps keep plaque under control with standard brushing.
    Chronic dry mouth can also lead to bad breath.
  • Oral health self care - Unfortunately, one of the common symptoms of depression (and, by extension, SAD) is less interest in caring for yourself or taking on normal responsibilities. While it’s rare for SAD to become as severe or prolonged as clinical depression, even experiencing it for a few weeks can wreak havoc on your oral health if you stop regularly brushing, flossing, and otherwise taking care of yourself like you normally would.
  • Mouth sores - Both cold sores and canker sores become more prevalent in the winter because of dehydration and more exposure to germs. While canker sores are not contagious, cold sores are. And, both put stress on your immune system, which is often fighting off various illnesses during the winter months as well.
  • Jaw pain - Temporomandibular joint disorders (TMD) are relatively common, especially in adult women, and they are not caused by the cold weather. However, like arthritis and other joint disorders, cold weather and the accompanying drop in barometric pressure will usually make the symptoms of TMD more pronounced. In some cases, the standard discomfort in the area surrounding the jaw joint can spread into headaches, neck aches, and toothaches. In extreme cases, it can even hamper movement of the jaw, which can impact chewing, talking, and even breathing, to some extent.  

If you’re facing any of these conditions this winter, or if there’s anything else going on with your oral health that’s causing you discomfort or that you don’t understand, don’t hesitate to contact your dentist and make an appointment for a checkup. While it’s rare for cold weather to lead directly to serious oral health problems, ignoring questionable symptoms won’t help anything. And, the sooner you’re feeling better, the more you can enjoy what’s left of the cool weather.

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