Airman readiness: Taking care of the body starts with the mouth

  • Published
  • By Shireen Bedi
  • Air Force Surgeon General Public Affairs
Before reaching for that mid-afternoon soda or in to that bowl of office candy, you might want to think about how well you are keeping your mouth clean. The mouth is an important part of the body and can affect overall health. October is Dental Hygiene Month and, according to Air Force dental experts, most do not realize the impact of optimal oral health care on readiness.

“If you want to take care of your body, start with your mouth,” says Lt. Col. Aida Solivan-Ortiz, a dental public health specialist and dental consultant to the Air Force Surgeon General. “Making a few small changes to diet, improving dental hygiene habits, and having regular dental appointments, help keep tooth decay and gum disease at bay, and can have an impact on overall health.”

Many studies find a link between oral health and diabetes, low birth weight, heart disease, scurvy, nutritional deficiencies, and even cancer.

“There is a clear connection between the mouth and the rest of the body,” said Solivan-Ortiz. “It is vital to practice good oral hygiene as part of your overall health.”

Good oral health is also vital for overall readiness. Not only do Airmen have to pass an annual dental exam, they also need to make sure they are taking the correct preventive measures, such as brushing and scheduling regular dental exams. These measures ensures that avoidable dental issues do not arise during deployment.

“You do not want to have a dental emergency down range, in the middle of nowhere, and you have a wisdom tooth pain or a dental abscess,” said Solivan-Ortiz. “Otherwise, you then have to mobilize a whole battalion to get you to a dental office. That puts the mission at risk, as well as the lives of the people who are rescuing you.”

Even though the Air Force regularly report good dental readiness numbers, dental teams are continuously working hard to fight tooth decay and gum disease. The population experiencing the highest rate of dental caries, commonly called tooth decay, is younger Airmen. Also susceptible are Airmen who work long, 12-hour shifts with little time to practice good dental care.

The main reason why these populations have higher rates of tooth decay than other Airmen populations has a lot to do with education.

“Mainly what we are noticing that most people simply do not know the proper technique of simply brushing their teeth,” said Solivan-Ortiz. “This is something that we can easily take for granted where lack of proper care can be detrimental to our oral health.” Another major issue many hygienists see is the increase of sugar in the average diet. More sugar creates a favorable environment for bacteria to grow, making it easier for bacteria to cause cavities and tooth decay.

“The increase of liquid sugar, in particular, has been a huge dental problem,” said SMSgt Celeste Hudson, an Air Force dental hygienist consultant. “Unnecessary amounts of soda and energy drinks are literally destroying our teeth. We have survived wars without these products, so we clearly do not need this in our diet.”

Poor diet combined with poor dental care, such as not brushing correctly or not flossing, contributed to poor oral health. As a response, the Air Force has developed effective programs to improve oral health of their Airmen. One impactful program is the High Caries Risk Program that tracks all active-duty Airmen who are at a higher risk for tooth decay and gum disease.

Once Air Force dental team identify a patient with a higher risk for dental disease, the teams develops and implements a focused intervention plan.

“We specifically focus on those patients by using chair-side education,” said Solivan-Ortiz. “During their appointments, we teach them the correct techniques to optimal oral health care. We also give out samples of dental products like brushes and floss. By tracking patients we make sure they are taking care of their oral health at home and also make sure they are making regular dental visits.”

The High Caries Risk Program has shown positive results. The occurrence of tooth decay in active duty Airmen decreased by 50 percent between 2001 and 2016. The success of this program can be attributed to targeted programing and focused educational efforts.

“It is necessary to get people motivated to care about and value their oral health,” said Hudson. “Reminding them of the risk this could have to their readiness as well as their overall health is an important part in this effort.”