Managing Wellness

Stress and Oral Health: Four Surprising Links

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Posted by October 6, 2016

Did you know that workplace stress costs American employers about $300 billion every year? This is due to factors such as decreased productivity and absenteeism. Stress and oral health are closely related, and stressed employees can develop a number of dental problems that require them to miss work to go to the dentist, or to be less productive while they’re at work.

You may already know that stress can make you clench or grind your teeth, leading to jaw or tooth pain, but that’s just the beginning. Here are four oral health conditions that are also associated with stress.

Canker Sores

Canker sores are painful sores that can form on any of the oral soft tissues, including the insides of the cheeks, the gums and even under the tongue. These sores can make it hard to eat or drink, and the pain can be distracting.

Canker sores can be triggered by many factors, including emotional stress. Once they’ve developed, they can take up to two weeks to heal, according to the Mayo Clinic.

Gum Disease

Gum disease is an inflammation of the gum tissue around the tooth. Symptoms may include red, swollen, sore and bleeding gums. In severe cases, gum disease can destroy the structures that hold the teeth in place, leading to tooth loss. Gum disease is caused by the bacteria in plaque, a sticky film that builds up on the teeth and along the gum line.

Poor oral hygiene is the main cause of gum disease, but it’s not the only factor. Stress can also contribute to gum disease in many ways. Stress is thought to weaken the immune system, which makes it easier for gum disease to take hold. Additionally, stressed people are reported to neglect their oral hygiene.


Cavities are holes that develop in the outer layer of the teeth. When bacteria inside the mouth feed on sugars, they release acids, and these acids eat away at the teeth, creating cavities. Cavities can lead to toothaches, tooth loss or even serious infections such as tooth abscesses.

What does stress have to do with cavities? A 2007 survey found that 43% of Americans eat unhealthy foods when they’re feeling stressed. Unhealthy foods, such as candy and chocolate bars, can lead to cavities because they contain high levels of sugar, and these sugars feed the acid-producing bacteria that cause cavities.

Oral Cancer

Oral cancer refers to any cancer that develops on the tissues inside the mouth, including the tongue and the gums. Sores that don’t heal, lumps on the oral tissues or even a sore throat can be signs of oral cancer. Costly treatments such as surgery, radiation therapy or chemotherapy may be required for people with oral cancer.

Stressed employees may choose unhealthy coping mechanisms that increase their risk of developing oral cancer. For example, people who smoke or drink have reported that they’re more likely to take part in those behaviors when they’re feeling stressed. Since alcohol and tobacco use are the biggest risk factors for oral cancer, this is a huge problem.

Controlling Stress in the Workplace

There are many things you can do to help your employees manage their stress. While federal law doesn’t require coffee breaks, encouraging your employees to take a 10-minute break in the mid-morning or mid-afternoon can help them manage their stress. You can also organize fun, low-cost activities, such as yoga or a book club, to help your employees relax.

Flexible scheduling—allowing employees to choose their own hours—can also decrease employee stress. Work-family conflicts are a major source of stress for employees, and flexible scheduling eliminates these conflicts without jeopardizing productivity.

Stress and oral health are interconnected, and the oral health conditions that result from stress can lead to missed work days and decreased productivity. To help your employees avoid canker sores, gum disease, cavities and oral cancer, take steps to control stress in your workplace. Not only will you be helping your employees safeguard their oral health, but you’ll also be protecting your bottom line.

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