HIV/AIDS and Dental Health

If you, or someone you know, is living with HIV/AIDS, the American Dental Association recommends that dental health care be part of all HIV/AIDS treatment plans. That’s because people living with HIV/AIDS are more susceptible to infections including dental infections, which can affect their overall health.  

What Is HIV/AIDS?

HIV (human immunodeficiency virus) is a virus that attacks a specific type of T cell known as CD4 cells. T cells are an important part of the body’s immune system which is needed to fight infection. 

If left untreated, HIV can destroy so many CD4 cells that a person can no longer fight off infections and disease.  AIDS (acquired immunodeficiency syndrome) is the last state of HIV infection where the immune system is so very weak that infection and cancer can take over. 

How is HIV transmitted?

In the United States, HIV is transmitted through sexual contact, or use of a contaminated needle or syringe. More than 1.2 million people in the United States are living with HIV; 1 in 8 people are unaware they have the virus. 

How is HIV diagnosed?

Symptoms alone are not enough to diagnose a person with HIV. The only way to know if you have HIV is to get tested. Gay, bisexual, and other men who have sex with men – particularly young black men who have sex with men – are the populations most affected by HIV. 

If you believe you have come into contact with HIV, get tested immediately. Regular testing for HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases is recommended for anyone who is sexually active with a new partner or multiple partners.

How is HIV treated?

There is currently no cure once you are infected with HIV, but there are ways to help control it. 

If a previously uninfected person is exposed to HIV, a medication known as post-exposure prohylaxis (PEP) should be started as soon as possible to potentially prevent infection with the virus. To be effective, HIV PEP must be started as soon as possible after contact and continued for its full course, which may take as long as four weeks.

If a person contracts HIV, the virus can be controlled with treatment called antiretroviral therapy. This involves taking antiretroviral medication and continued monitoring of how much virus is present in a person’s blood and how many CD4 cells are present.

How Does HIV/AIDS Affect the Mouth?

Your mouth may be the first part of your body to be affected when infected with HIV.  Because infection with HIV will weakened your immune system, this means you will be susceptible to infections and other problems.  In your mouth, this can cause pain and tooth loss.  

People with HIV may experience the following mouth issues:
Dental and mouth problems related to HIV can be painful, which can cause trouble chewing or swallowing. This may prevent you from taking your HIV medication. It can also result in malnutrition, as you may have trouble eating and absorbing enough essential nutrients.  A compromised digestive system may affect the absorption of your HIV drug treatment.

How Can I Cope with Dental and Mouth Issues Related To HIV?

Most mouth health problems related to HIV are treatable. Talk to your dentist about what treatment is best for you. 

The best ways to prevent these issues are to do the following:
  • Visit your dentist for regularly scheduled appointments.
  • Brush and floss your teeth twice daily for two minutes.
  • Take your HIV medicine on schedule.
  • Tell your doctor if your HIV medicine is causing dry mouth. Ask what treatment is best for you.
  • If you do not have a regular dentist, ask your primary care provider or clinic for a referral.

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