As part of our new normal, face masks are helping to keep us safe from catching and spreading COVID-19. But dentists say the coverings can also be doing damage to our teeth.
Dentists have dubbed the situation "mask mouth" as more cases of poor oral hygiene pop up, especially among young people who are wearing face masks at school for extended periods of time.
"Imagine an oven that is being basically framed by the mask, and the germs that are inside the mouth can’t get out, so they stay in," said Dr. Jonelle Anamelechi, a pediatric dentist at Children's Choice Pediatric Dentistry and Orthodontics in D.C. and New Carrollton, Maryland.
Face masks can trap in bad bacteria, causing cavities and tooth decay, especially among young children who tend to breathe out of their mouths.
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"And so by doing that, that increases the amount of bacteria, dries out the mouth and creates even more of an environment that could produce poor oral hygiene or poor oral health," she said.
Mask mouth can also cause bad breath and gum disease.
And it’s not just kids who are affected. Dentists say they’re seeing the same thing in adults, too.
Dr. Anamelechi says there are four simple things you can do to prevent "mask mouth."
First, she tells patients to brush their teeth twice a day and to drink plenty of water throughout the day, while they’re in school.
"That water bottle is now important to have and be full because then, they can take short sips, rehydrate the mouth, get some of that bacteria swishing around and out of the mouth as much as possible," she said.
Second, Dr. Anamelechi tells parents to pack apples in their children's lunches.
"Because [an] apple is nature's toothbrush," she said. "And so if we need to refresh the mouth during the day, what a better way to put a snack in the lunchbox or in the book bag? And they can have that during the day to continue to cleanse their mouth when they can't get in there and physically brush."
Third, change your masks frequently, and if they're the reusable kind, remember to wash them often. Depending on the severity, "mask mouth" can also cause visible symptoms.
"You may even actually see bumps or lesions that come around the mouth ... It's a big reminder of [the need for] frequent changes of masks, having some of those backup or extra masks," she said. "If you're using a disposable mask, it really shouldn't be used more than once or twice. And then, of course, laundering the ones that are the reusable masks."
Lastly, don't miss your regular dental cleanings to remove plaque and tartar that build up over time.
"You can't brush that off," Dr. Anamelechi said. "You have to come to the dentist and get that removed, which then makes it super important to keep up with those six-month appointments for cleanings."