Dry January – Don’t be Down in the Mouth

Up next in our collection of blogs to mark Dry January, this week’s theme focuses on alcohol and how it can affect and lead to complications in your dental health. Here, Dr Mike O’Reilly talks about some of the things to be aware of.

Now the festivities are over, it’s time to recycle the empties and plan for a healthier 2021, which for many people means reducing their alcohol intake, but how can a month off the booze (or longer) affect your mouth as well as your general wellbeing?


Dry January began in 2013 with around 4,000 people taking part. Over 4 million abstained in 2020 and for many it can provide a kick start to good habits in the new year as well as saving a bit of money along the way!

My name is Dr Mike O’Reilly, and I’m part of the Dental Team as a Clinical Advisor, within Provider Assurance based at our Eastbourne office and part of the clinical network here at the NHS Business Services Authority (NHSBSA).

I am a new starter (I began in November last year) and have over 25 years’ experience of Clinical Dentistry in many fields including Oral and Maxillofacial Surgery, Community Dental Care and General Dental Practice. Despite the basics, not many people know some of the effects that alcohol can have on your mouth and dental health, so here’s some things to take note of.


Alcohol and how it affects the mouth

  • Tooth Decay and Acid Erosion

Many alcoholic drinks are packed with sugar and are also acidic. This can cause damage to the hard tissues of the tooth leading to problems such as cavities and erosion. If erosion or decay continues over a period of time, this can cause exposure of the sensitive part of the tooth and eventually lead to further issues such as pain, infection and eventually tooth loss.

Fizzy alcoholic drinks such as Prosecco can be especially harmful to tooth enamel. It’s wise to avoid brushing your teeth for 30 minutes after consuming any acidic drinks to avoid damaging the enamel further by abrasion. Alcohol also causes dehydration which can mean reduced salivary flow. Saliva acts as a natural “buffer” against acids, so if your mouth is dry, you’re more at risk from decay.

  • Mouth Cancer

Alcohol is the second most common risk factor for mouth cancer behind smoking. Drinking alcohol to excess is linked to one in three mouth cancers, a disease that has increased by 135% over the last 20 years. If detected early by your dentist, mouth cancer can sometimes be treated without invasive surgery. At a normal check-up appointment, as well as looking at your teeth and gums, the dentist will also look at your soft tissues in your mouth and check for any abnormalities such as ulcers that do not heal, unexplained “lumps” that don’t go away and white/red patches which may need investigating. There’s a big worry now amongst the dental profession that a lot of early diagnosis of mouth cancer may have been missed because of patients being unable to see their dentist during lockdown.  So if you’re  worried about any abnormality in your mouth, it’s important to contact your dentist for advice.

  • Trauma

There’s a lot of evidence that alcohol consumption increases the risk of dental trauma and fractures involving the facial bones, approximately 20-25% of all facial trauma has been shown to be related to the effects of alcohol.

  • Tooth Staining

Red wine can especially cause discolouration of the teeth.

There are a few other issues which when combined with alcohol can have even more damaging consequences:

  • Smoking and Vaping

When alcohol consumption is combined with smoking, the risks of damage to the hard and soft tissues of the mouth are increased substantially. Smoking and drinking together can increase the risk of mouth cancer up to 30 times.

Smoking tobacco causes a lack of oxygen in your bloodstream which can lead to infected gums not being able to heal. Gum disease can progress much faster in smokers than non-smokers and is a big cause of tooth loss amongst this group.

The jury is still out about vaping, but without tar and nicotine (the two biggest elements that cause gum disease) it looks to be preferable to smoking tobacco products, but more research is needed.

  • Drugs

As well as being destructive to the rest of your body, many illegal drugs can cause problems in the mouth. Many drugs can cause a dry mouth due to reduced saliva flow and drugs such as heroin, cocaine and ecstasy are stimulants which can make you grind and clench your teeth which can weaken or even break them.

If you’re taking part in Dry January good luck and all the best for 2021.