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HIV and Your Mouth

April 8, 2015

HIV and Your Mouth

Table of Contents

Oral Problems Are Common

Oral (mouth) problems are very common in people living with HIV (HIV+). Anywhere from a quarter to a half of all people living with HIV will have oral problems that arise because of their weakened immune systems. This puts people living with HIV at greater risk for gum problems (gingivitis or periodontal disease), mouth infections, and sores.

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 HIV+ People

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 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

Oral Health and Street Drugs

Additional mouth problems may occur if you use street drugs. Opium, heroin, and cocaine can increase tooth decay and gum disease. Crystal meth can cause severe oral problems, sometimes described as "meth mouth," including dry mouth and widespread tooth decay.

Oral Health and Tobacco

Tobacco use is a primary cause of several oral diseases and conditions. People who use tobacco, whether they smoke it (e.g., cigarettes, cigars, pipes) or use smokeless tobacco products (e.g., chew, plug, loose leaf, twist, or snuff), are more likely to develop oral cancer, throat cancer, and gum problems (periodontal disease). In fact, recent research showed that, in the US, smoking is the single biggest risk factor for non-AIDS defining cancers among people living with HIV. Smoking has more of an effect on an HIV+ person's risk of getting cancer than having a low CD4 count, a non-suppressed viral load, hepatitis C, or an AIDS diagnosis.

Tobacco use commonly causes tooth decay, discoloration of your teeth (yellow teeth), and bad breath. Using tobacco also weakens the immune system's response to infections in your mouth. As a result, you will be more likely to get infections in your mouth and these infections will heal more slowly. Since the immune system of HIV+ people is already weakened, it is important for those living with HIV not to further weaken their immune response to oral problems by using tobacco products. If you use tobacco, talk to your health care provider about how to stop smoking or chewing. For more information and help with stopping smoking, see our article on Smoking and Tobacco Use.

Getting Dental Care in the US

You cannot legally be refused dental treatment because of your HIV status, but finding dental care can be difficult depending on your financial resources, insurance coverage, and where you live. Asking your health care provider or HIV specialist for suggestions on where to find dental care in your area is a great place to start. Options for people with fixed incomes and/or no insurance are limited, but they do exist:

Taking Care of Yourself

Because of the increased risk for oral problems, it is especially important for people living with HIV to take good care of their mouths. Proper dental care is needed to keep teeth and gums healthy. Basic guidelines for good oral health suggest that you:

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