Just*in Time: HIV & Oral Health

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Persons living with HIV must take extra care of their bodies and minds. I have this saying I repeat to myself when things don’t go as well as I think they should go after a depressing doctor’s appointment. “My body wasn’t given the ability to fight off a virus constantly.” This includes one’s oral health; yes, I’m talking about your teeth and gums, people. People may not know this but there are certain things of which people living with HIV need to stay conscious and cautious.

As several oral health issues can show up with people who are living with HIV, here are eight facts that one must know about HIV and the mouth. (Remember that, with any medical condition, you should consult a physician, preferably someone who specializes in HIV medicine.)

1 Problem: Oral warts (human papillomavirus, or HPV) can be transmitted sexually.
Solution: The warts in your mouth can be frozen off or cut out.

2. Problem: Dry mouth and tooth decay can happen to anyone. Habits such as drinking coffee, alcohol, carbonated drinks, high sugar intake, and smoking cigarettes can give someone dry mouth and tooth decay.
Solution: Drink water! Water can help cleanse the mouth and body, prevent dry mouth and cleanse your kidneys and liver, whose health is paramount when living with HIV.

3 Problem: Candidiasis (thrush) is basically a fungus or yeast that grows in your mouth. The symptoms are white lumps or red rashes inside your mouth. It is mostly found on the inside of your cheeks. Thrush can be very painful but there is hope.
Solution: Talk to your doctor about being prescribed anti-fungal medicines. Some medicine come in gel form. These medicines may ease your pain, but thrush will have to come out of your system on its own.

4 Problem: Canker sores (apthous ulcers) are open sores in your mouth and the back of your throat. They are usually caused by the types of food people eat, i.e., tomatoes, juices or anything acidic, and spicy foods.
Solution: Some creams and gels work and, along with drinking water, should help soothe the pain.

5 Problem: Cold sores (herpes simplex type 1) happen to just about everyone, but with people infected with HIV the sores come back more often and more severe than in people who do not have HIV.
Solution: Antiviral drugs are available to manage the symptoms and reduce the longevity and intensity of the outbreaks.

6 Problem: Gum disease (gingivitis) is a major problem for people living with HIV. This condition causes pain and bleeding, and, if it goes unchecked by a dentist, then teeth will decay and fall out.
Solution: Brush your teeth daily. However, it is just as important to floss. When you first start this process, flossing might hurt or your gums may bleed but it will subside in time. Try to floss every night before you go to bed. The number-one thing that is a turn off to any man/woman is bad breath.

7 Problem: Kaposi’s sarcoma (KS), a type of cancer, can look like dark purple spots on the gums and on the back of the tongue.
Solution: When a HIV-positive person goes on antiretroviral therapy, the chance of having KS decreases exponentially.

8 Problem: Shingles (herpes zoster) can show up in the body as a painful rash, blisters, or lesions, which can show up on one side of the body, usually on the face, which includes the mouth, ears, pharynx (nasal or oral cavity), ears and larynx or torso area.
Solution: In 2006, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved a vaccine called Zostavax. Zostavax is a live, attenuated vaccine that contains the same strain of virus.

These conditions are all potentially very serious and you should see a dentist or doctor immediately to stay on top of your oral health. It’s important! As you grow older with HIV, the virus could grow stronger. Preventative measures should be taken to ensure good healthy teeth and gums. Brush your teeth every day and try to floss before bed. I know that I sound like a toothpaste commercial, but oral health is a serious issue for everyone but especially people living with HIV.


Justin B. Terry-Smith, MPH, has been fighting the good fight since 1999. He’s garnered recognition and awards for his work, but he’s more concerned about looking for new ways to transform society for the better than resting on his laurels. He started up in gay rights and HIV activism in 2005, published an HIV-themed children’s book, I Have A Secret (Creative House Press) in 2011, and created his own award-winning video blog called, “Justin’s HIV Journal”: justinshivjournal.blogspot.com. Presently, he is working toward his doctorate in public health. Visit his main Web site at www.justinbsmith.com. He welcomes your questions at [email protected].