Impact of climate change on oral health

WHILE some may perceive climate change as trivial, the reality is that it poses substantial challenges globally, including here in Malaysia. The effects of climate change are increasingly evident, typically marked by rising temperatures, shifting rainfall patterns, and a heightened frequency of extreme weather events.

These changes have multiple consequences. Escalating flooding is a significant concern, causing damage to ecosystems and infrastructure while elevating the risk of disease transmission. Conversely, droughts, often viewed as issues in other parts of the world such as the United States and Europe, have adverse impacts on food production and supply chains, and indirectly affect us too. These extreme climate variations have far-reaching implications, affecting agriculture, water resources, and coastal regions. In urban centres, the frequency of flash floods has risen, increasing the urgency of addressing this issue, not just by the governments, but each and every one of us as well.

The impact of climate change extends beyond these sectors, reaching personal areas such as our oral health. Confused? Let me explain. The connection between climate change and oral health may not be immediately apparent, but it is crucial to understand the relationship, and more importantly, the indirect yet profound consequences.

Climate change affects our oral health through heat-related dehydration. As temperatures rise, prolonged and extreme heatwaves become more common. These conditions lead to increased perspiration and greater evaporation, resulting in rapid fluid loss from the body and a reduction of saliva production in the mouth. Since saliva plays a vital role in maintaining a healthy oral environment, its reduction will reduce its benefits and increase the risk of tooth decay, gum diseases, and dry mouth.

Dry mouth is a common and bothersome condition, affecting up to half of the elderly and approximately one in five people in their early 30s. Symptoms include cracked or peeling lips, bad breath, difficulty chewing, tasting, or swallowing. Speaking becomes uncomfortable as the tongue may feel like it sticks to the roof of the mouth due to a lack of saliva. In the long run, dry mouth can lead to various oral diseases and infections, ultimately affecting one’s quality of life.

So, what can we do? During the hot days, it is important to follow these simple yet essential guidelines to prevent dehydration and maintain good health. Firstly, ensure proper hydration by consistently drinking an ample amount of water throughout the day, irrespective of whether you feel thirsty or not. The recommended daily water intake varies based on factors such as body weight, temperature, activity level, and caloric expenditure. Supplying the body with an external intake of one to two litres of water is generally advised.

As a side note, children with a higher body surface to volume ratio are particularly susceptible to dehydration. Additionally, young children may struggle to recognise their thirst or independently procure a drink. Ageing further reduces the body’s fluid reserve, diminishing the capacity to conserve water, especially when coupled with chronic illnesses like diabetes and dementia and the use of medications. A study on the effects of daily water intake on oral health reported that a reduction of one cup of water per day increased the prevalence of gum disease and tooth decay by 2-3%.

But be aware of the kind of drinks you take. Avoid excessive consumption of sugary and caffeinated beverages as they contribute to fluid loss. The American Health Association recommends limiting daily sugar intake to no more than 100 calories (about six teaspoons or 24 grammes) for adult women, and 150 calories (around nine teaspoons or 36 grammes of sugar) for most men.

Caffeine, commonly found in coffee, tea, and carbonated drinks, poses a potential risk. An average of four cups (945ml) of coffee considered safe for most healthy adults. Each 240 ml cup of coffee contains around 100 mg of caffeine. Caution is advised against consuming excessive amounts of caffeinated beverages, as their chilled nature makes them easy to consume quickly in large quantities.

Clothing also play a role; go for lightweight, loose-fitting attire to assist your body in regulating its temperature effectively. During peak heat, limit outdoor activities and avoid exercising, as humid temperatures accelerate fluid loss. Heat stress, resulting from insufficient evaporation of sweat, can be mitigated by seeking shade, wearing a hat, and using sunscreen when outdoors. Consider incorporating water-rich foods like fruits and vegetables into your diet.

Lastly, familiarise yourself with signs of dehydration, including a dry mouth, loss of appetite, unsteadiness, lightheadedness, or imbalance, redness of the skin often accompanied by a burning sensation, and headaches. If severe symptoms occur, do not hesitate to seek medical attention.

In conclusion, as we grapple with the far-reaching consequences of climate change, it is crucial to recognise its unexpected impact on oral health. The rise in temperatures and increased frequency of extreme weather events directly contribute to conditions like dehydration, which, in turn, poses a threat to our oral well-being. By implementing these straightforward yet crucial steps, each of us can contribute to mitigating the effects of climate change on oral health. – November 14, 2023.

* Prof Nor Adinar Baharuddin reads The Malaysian Insight.

* This is the opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of The Malaysian Insight. Article may be edited for brevity and clarity.

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