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HIV and Your Mouth

February 2, 2017

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Table of Contents

Oral Problems Are Common

Oral (mouth) problems can be very common in people living with HIV (HIV+). Oral health can often be an indicator of overall health. Therefore, if HIV weakens your immune system, you will likely be at greater risk for gum problems (gingivitis or periodontal disease), mouth infections, and sores. Often, the best way to prevent and treat problems in the mouth is to treat HIV by taking HIV drugs so that you stay as healthy as possible overall.

Oral problems can cause discomfort and embarrassment, and affect how you feel about yourself. Oral problems can also lead to trouble with eating and speaking. If mouth pain or tenderness makes it difficult to chew and swallow, or if you can not taste as well as you used to, you may not eat the food you need to stay well. It is important to see your dentist or health care provider as soon as possible if you notice any changes in your mouth.

Oral Conditions That Are More Common in People Living With HIV

ConditionWhat and WhereTreatment
Aphthous ulcers
(canker sores)
Painful red sores that might have a yellow-gray film on top. Usually on the underside of the tongue or the inside of the cheeks and lips. Mild cases -- Over-the-counter cream or prescription mouthwash that contains steroids.
More severe cases -- steroids in a pill form, or, in rare cases, thalidomide.
Herpes Simplex
(cold sores) are caused by viral infection
One or more small blisters or ulcers on the lips or on the roof of the mouth and/or gums Antiviral medications (e.g., acyclovir, valcyclovir) in pill form are prescribed and can dramatically reduce healing time. Over-the-counter medicine (e.g., Abreva) may help ease symptoms.
Oral hairy leukoplakia (OHL) is caused by the Epstein-Barr virus (also known as human herpes virus 4) White patches that do not wipe away; sometimes very thick and "hair-like." Usually appear on the side of the tongue. OHL is not harmful and usually goes away without treatment. More severe cases can be treated with antiviral medication (e.g., acyclovir or valcyclovir). Topical treatments are also available. Stopping smoking and not drinking alcohol can help.
Candidiasis (thrush) is a fungal (yeast) infection White or yellowish patches inside the mouth, throat and on the tongue. If wiped away, there will be redness or bleeding underneath. Mild cases -- prescription antifungal lozenge or mouthwash.
More severe cases -- prescription antifungal pills.
Angular Cheilitis is caused by a fungal infection or malnutrition (too little vitamin B2, zinc, or iron) Cracks on the corners of the mouth Antifungal cream applied directly to the site or oral Diflucan (fluconazole), if fungal; improved diet or vitamin and mineral supplements (if malnutrition).
Oral Warts are caused by the human papilloma virus (HPV) Small, white, gray, or pinkish rough bumps that look like cauliflower. They can appear inside the lips and on other parts of the mouth. Inside the mouth -- a health care provider can remove them surgically or use "cryosurgery" -- a way of freezing them off. If possible, consult a dentist who is an expert in HIV care.
On the lips -- a prescription cream that will wear away the wart. Warts can return after treatment.
Kaposi's sarcoma (KS) is a cancer associated with HIV and caused by a virus (human herpes virus 8) Red or purple lesions that can be raised or flat. KS usually occurs on the roof of the mouth but can be found anywhere in the mouth. The best treatment is keeping the immune system healthy by taking your HIV drugs. There are several other therapies for KS, depending on how many and how severe the lesions are. If possible. consult a dermatologist or oncologist who is familiar with KS.
Periodontal disease is an infection of the gums and supporting bone Red gums that bleed easily and bad breath Regular dental visits and good oral hygiene both prevent and treat periodontal disease. Regular use of dental floss may prevent periodontal disease.
Xerostomia (dry mouth) can be caused by HIV, HIV drugs or antidepressants Lack of saliva (spit); trouble chewing and swallowing; dry, sticky, or burning mouth; and cracked or chapped lips. If untreated, dry mouth can lead to tooth decay.
  • Artificial saliva
  • Sipping water or sugarless drinks
  • Chewing sugarless gum
  • Sucking sugarless hard candy
  • Avoiding tobacco
  • Avoiding alcohol

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This article was provided by The Well Project. Visit The Well Project's Web site to learn more about their resources and initiatives for women living with HIV. The Well Project shares its content with to ensure all people have access to the highest quality treatment information available. The Well Project receives no advertising revenue from or the advertisers on this site. No advertiser on this site has any editorial input into The Well Project's content.

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