Simply put, your oral mucosa (yes, everyone has one) is the mucous membrane lining inside your mouth, which includes your gums. Research in the Journal of the Royal Society Interface explains that it acts as a protective layer. When moistened with saliva, your mucosa helps you speak, chew and swallow food. However, the inside of your mouth can also be a signpost for more serious health issues. Here’s what your mucosa could be telling you.
Mucosa and Viral Diseases
With today’s immunizations, diseases such as chickenpox and measles are rare. However, someone with measles will have tiny white spots with a bluish centre on the inside of their cheek, says the Mayo Clinic. According to the National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research, chickenpox also causes mouth lesions that rupture and form shallow ulcers.
If you continually have cold sores or fever blisters, you may be dealing with the herpes simplex virus (HSV-1). These painful lesions can occur on the lip or inside of your mouth and often join together, rupture and crust over. While not curable, your dentist or doctor may prescribe medication to help the healing and discomfort, but they usually go away on their own in a couple of weeks.
Hand, foot and mouth disease, caused by the Coxsackie virus, is contagious and common in children. Along with fever, painful sores develop in the mouth and throat. The Epstein-Barr virus, better known as mononucleosis, produces small oral ulcers, bleeding gums and tiny red spots where the soft and hard palates meet.
Mucosa and Fungal Diseases
Individuals with compromised immune systems, such as newborns, older adults and people with HIV, cancer or diabetes, sometimes develop oral thrush, which is caused by the yeast candidiasis. This infection results in whites patches that slough off, leaving a bleeding sore.
Oral lichen planus is another condition affecting the oral mucosa that may be due to immune system deficiencies or the result of taking certain medications, notes the Mayo Clinic. It triggers white, lacy patches inside the cheeks, as well as painful open sores and swelling.
Mucosa and Oral Cancer
Oral cancer can affect the mouth, tongue or the back of the throat, and according to the National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research, almost 48,000 people in the U.S. are diagnosed with it every year. Oral cancer is often manageable, but the survival rate declines if it isn’t diagnosed and treated early. Smoking and use of tobacco products put you at risk, and heavy use of alcohol along with smoking provides an even greater risk than using either substance by itself.
Dentists screen for oral cancer during routine checkups, so keeping dental appointments can be a lifesaver. You should also know the warning signs and avoid risky behaviours. The main sign to look for is unusual or thick red or white patches anywhere in your mouth. Additional symptoms are a lump in your throat, trouble chewing and swallowing, feeling numb in your tongue or other areas, or pain in one ear. Any symptoms lasting more than two weeks mean you should call your dentist immediately.
Preventing Mouth Ulcers
The key to a healthy mouth and disease prevention is keeping it as clean and bacteria-free as possible. This means brushing twice a day and flossing once daily. Regular checkups allow your dentist to look for any unusual lesions on your oral mucosa and successfully treat them early.
When to Call Your Doctor
Any ulcer or lesion in your mouth (whether it’s causing discomfort or not) that hasn’t gone away on its own within two or three weeks should be seen by a dentist or medical provider. Your doctor can make a diagnosis and give you direction on how to treat the problem. In some instances, you may need blood tests or a biopsy to verify the cause.
You may not have given much thought to the lining of your mouth before, but it can help diagnose a serious disease. You may want to start admiring more than just your smile in the mirror — open wide, say ahh and take a peep at your oral mucosa.