If the truth fits

Nov. 1, 2007
The British Dental Health Foundation at www.dentalhealth.org.uk is the United Kingdom's latest oral health charity.

by Charles John Palenik, MS, PhD, MBA

The British Dental Health Foundation at www.dentalhealth.org.uk is the United Kingdom’s largest oral health charity. The foundation attempts to represent the public interest in oral health matters. It provides information to patients and practitioners, tries to influence government policy, offers a free consumer advice service, and maintains an impartial product accreditation scheme. The foundation also publishes a wide range of literature for consumers, the press, and dental professionals.

Each May, the foundation operates its National Smile Month campaign. This year’s theme was “Two Minutes Twice a Day.” The effort promoted three key issues - brush twice a day with fluoridated toothpaste, cut down on sugary foods and drinks, and visit your dentist regularly.

One special foundation activity is the National Smile Month Survey. This is a cooperative effort with the HSA, a provider of private health plans and insurance. The online survey, which was available to the public for one month, contained demographic inquiries and a set of 24 dental-related questions. The goal was to obtain practical and useful information. The responses proved fascinating, offering a unique prospective concerning what people think and more importantly, what they actually do. Here are a few samples:

Question 3 - What is the most unusual thing that you ever used to pick your teeth? Based on the responses, it appears that people are willing to risk their oral health by picking their teeth with whatever is handy. About 60 percent of those surveyed did admit to using makeshift items. In addition to screwdrivers, scissors, needles and knives, people reported using keys, paper clips, matchsticks, fish bones, earrings, nail files, pencils, playing cards, and forks. An additional 23 percent with food stuck in their teeth chose not to try to remove it. Only 22 percent of survey participants said they used dental floss regularly. The foundation has started to reinforce the concept that flossing should be done once a day before brushing activity. It also has disseminated information concerning the proper use of floss and interdental wood sticks.

Question 10 - If a friend or colleague had bad breath, would you risk your friendship by telling the person? Bad breath proved to be a topic of great interest. About 20 percent of respondents indicated that his or her partner had bad breath. The results were the same for women and men. More than 42 percent revealed that a friend or colleague had bad breath. Most survey participants would not risk a friendship by sharing the bad news. It appears people have to find out for themselves. In its literature, the foundation reminds readers that most bad breath is the result of poor oral hygiene. It also offers the “lick and sniff” method to evaluate one’s breath. Simply lick the inside of your wrist, leave it for a few seconds, and then sniff.

Question 11 - Would you ever be happy to lend your toothbrush to someone? Most of the respondents were glad to share. More than 60 percent were willing to let their partners, children, friends - even celebrities - borrow their toothbrush. Interestingly, men were more reluctant to share than were women (50 percent vs. 33 percent). Allowing others to use their toothbrush does leave people open to a variety of bacterial and viral infections. Sharing of personal care items, such as toothbrushes and razors, could lead to hepatitis B and C, as well as HIV infection. Further study is needed to determine if people are aware of the possible risks, or if they simply do not care - especially if they could share their toothbrush with a favorite rock star.

A series of questions from this year’s survey directed the foundation to report that the oral health-care habits recorded were eight times worse than last year. You have already read some of this “bad” news. But there is more. More than 13 percent brush “a few times a week” or “never” while 17 percent “could not remember” the last time they changed their toothbrush. The survey indicated a disturbing trend of people making little effort to maintain the health of their teeth. Proper oral health care prevents a range of conditions, especially tooth decay and periodontal disease. The latter can be linked to heart disease, diabetes, and low birth weight babies.

On first pass, the results of the foundation’s survey are somewhat amusing - even to the point of being prurient. On second review, however, the seriousness and alarming implications of responses become more evident. Most of us would not admit to practicing any of these dental behaviors. But, could we say with confidence, the same for the rest of the American population? The candid responses from the foundation’s survey require straightforward advice to patients and practitioners.

Dr. Charles John Palenik is the director of Infection Control Research and Services at the Indiana University School of Dentistry. He is the co-author of the popular “Infection Control and Management of Hazardous Materials for the Dental Team.” In 2003, he was chairman of the Executive Board of OSAP, dentistry’s resource for infection control and safety. Questions about any infection control issue may be directed to [email protected].

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