When people think about what smoking does to their teeth, they probably think of the stains left on tooth surfaces by nicotine and tar. This discolouration is a common reason why people choose teeth whitening treatments.
But smoking and other tobacco use can have more harmful effects on your oral health beyond appearance. It can also increase your risk factor for serious oral diseases and tooth loss.
Combined with regular brushing and flossing, a healthy diet and dental check-ups, quitting smoking can significantly lower your oral health and general health risks and help you to look after your smile.
Tooth decay (dental caries) and gum disease (periodontal disease) are caused by the build-up of plaque and tartar on the teeth. If this reaches the gum line, it can irritate the gums and cause them to swell, become more sensitive or bleed when brushed. If gum disease isn't treated, it can lead to permanent damage such as receding gums and tooth loss.
Smoking can increase your risk of developing gum disease by around 6 times and its effects may also be 6 times as severe. This can include increased tartar build-up and the destruction of supporting structures around the teeth, leading to tooth loss.
Smoking contributes to gum disease by reducing blood flow to the teeth and gums and reducing production of saliva, which is important for cleansing the mouth of bacteria. Quitting smoking can lower these risk factors.
The most serious oral health problem linked to tobacco use is oral cancer (mouth cancer). These cancers can affect the lips, tongue, cheeks and other soft tissues in the mouth and are around 9 times more common in smokers than non-smokers.
Smoking is the leading cause of oral cancer in Australia, accounting for 57% of cases in men and 51% in women in 2006. Your risk factor will be higher if you're also a heavy drinker. Quitting smoking could cut your risk factor in half within 5 years.
Early detection is critical for the success of oral cancer treatment. Ask your dentist if they offer an oral cancer screening as part of your regular check-up.
Smoking can also affect the mouth's ability to heal from injuries such as ulcers and can increase the risk of complications following some dental procedures, especially those involving oral surgery.
Treatments such as dental implants are less likely to be successful for smokers. Your dentist will recommend giving up, at least during the time it takes for the implant to bond with your jaw.
Smoking's effects on appearance go beyond stained teeth. Nicotine and tar in cigarettes can also stain the tongue, while the action of smoking can also cause premature wrinkling around the lips and other parts of the face.
Bad breath from smoking can last for hours, as the smoke remains in the lungs and gets exhaled. As smoking can dull the sense of smell, many smokers aren't aware of this odour.
Quitting smoking is one of the most beneficial lifestyle changes you can make to improve your health, as well as avoiding harming other people through secondary smoke. The risks of smoking are proportional to the number of cigarettes smoked, so smoking less often or giving up altogether will lower your risks over time.
Support services in Australia include:
Keeping up with your regular dental visits is also important, as your dentist can check your mouth for signs of smoking-related problems and perform an oral cancer screening.
 Australian Government Department of Health. The effect of smoking on your mouth [Online] 2012 [Accessed May 2019] Available from: http://www.quitnow.gov.au/internet/quitnow/publishing.nsf/Content/effect-on-mouth
 Australian Dental Association. Lifestyle Risks [Online] 2017 [Accessed August 2019] Available from: https://www.ada.org.au/Your-Dental-Health/Older-Adults-65/Lifestyle-Risks-(1)
 AIHW (Australian Institute of Health and Welfare) & AACR (Australasian Association of Cancer Registries) 2007. Cancer in Australia: an overview, 2006. Cancer Series no.37. Cat. No. CAN 32. Canberra: AIHW.