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Oral pathology is the dental specialty that studies the causes and effects of diseases affecting the mouth and surrounding structures, according to the American Academy of Oral and Maxillofacial Pathology. These diseases can involve the teeth, the supporting bones and the temporomandibular joints, as well as the gums, tongue and other soft tissues, like the salivary glands.

While tooth decay and gum disease may be the most familiar oral issues, there are a number of other conditions that can affect the mouth. In most cases, these conditions can be treated by a dentist or prevented by practicing a thorough oral care routine.

1. Herpes Simplex Virus

If you have fever blisters or cold sores, you may have oral herpes, a common mouth infection. In most cases, the first bout of the herpes simplex virus occurs during childhood, at which time the symptoms are more severe. The painful blisters may form on the lips, face and inside the mouth. Swollen glands and fever are also symptoms of the virus.

These contagious sores eventually go away, but the virus stays inactive within your body until stress, illness, fever, sun exposure or other factors trigger a recurrence. Fortunately, immediate use of over-the-counter medications or antiviral prescriptions from your dental professional can quickly alleviate the symptoms.

2. Candidiasis (Thrush)

Candidiasis or thrush is caused by an overgrowth of the Candida fungus in the mouth. Babies, the elderly and people with compromised immune systems — including those undergoing chemotherapy, steroid or antibiotic treatment — are often affected. Thrush is also frequently seen in patients wearing dentures.

Thrush appears as white patches in the mouth that become red and inflamed when scraped. These patches may be painful, but they usually go away within one to two weeks with the help of antifungal medications prescribed by your dentist or doctor.

3. Black Hairy Tongue

This condition is as unsightly as it sounds, but it’s harmless and easily remedied. The tongue is covered with cone-shaped projections called papillae. When they fail to shed naturally, the papillae can grow beyond their normal 1 millimeter length and appear hairy, states the American Academy of Oral Medicine.

Poor oral hygiene, medications, radiation treatment and tobacco use can cause black hairy tongue. The condition can also develop when an individual drinks coffee excessively or only eats soft foods. Implementing an excellent oral hygiene routine, including a tongue scraper, is usually all that’s needed to resolve the problem.

4. Oral Cancer

Oral cancer — which can affect the tongue, mouth, lips and throat — is one of the most serious oral diseases, but in many cases, it is preventable. The Oral Cancer Foundation reports that nearly 50,000 people in the U.S. are diagnosed with oral cancer annually, and the primary contributing factors are smoking and heavy alcohol consumption.

Prevention is simple: quit smoking and limit alcohol intake. Also see your dentist or doctor for regular oral cancer screenings, since early detection can help you fight the disease. If you notice an unusual sore or lump anywhere in your mouth, contact your dentist as soon as possible.

Your dentist can help you overcome any oral health issues you experience. Tooth decay, gum disease and other conditions that fall under the category of oral pathology can often be prevented by good oral hygiene and regular dental visits. If you have any unexpected discomfort or notice anything abnormal in your mouth, make an appointment with your dentist to have it checked out.