Updated on February 23, 2024
6 min read

Veterans Dental Health — Common Oral Conditions & Diseases

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How Can Serving In The Military Impact Your Oral Health?

Compared to non-veterans, vets are likelier to develop general health conditions. These include oral health issues, certain cancers, and mental illnesses.

A significant factor contributing to these is the long-term exposure to harmful substances, such as herbicides and asbestos, and the effects of explosions. These conditions and exposures often lead to declining health, which may not become apparent until years after retirement.

Common health problems that veterans experience requiring dental services include:

  • Cavities
  • Gum disease
  • Oral infections
  • Chronic pain
  • Joint pain
  • Organ-related issues

Oral Care and Hygiene for Veterans

Oral care and hygiene needs for veterans are similar to those of any other person. The only difference is that veterans have VA benefits to access specialized services through the VA dental insurance program under the Department of Veterans Affairs. 

A good oral hygiene routine includes:

  • Brushing twice a day
  • Flossing regularly
  • Visiting the dentist for professional teeth cleanings every six months

The Correlation Between General & Oral Health in Vets

After completing their service, many veterans often suffer from general health conditions, which can affect their oral health. It highlights the importance of comprehensive dental coverage. 

Regular check-ups and obtaining services through VA dental care benefits can help manage these health conditions effectively.

The general health conditions affecting oral health include:

1. Respiratory Cancers

Chemotherapy, a standard treatment for lung cancer under a comprehensive medical program, can significantly impact the oral cavity. Veterans undergoing chemotherapy for respiratory cancers may experience a range of oral health issues, including:

Exposure to herbicides, chemicals, dust, smoke, and other particles has led many veterans to develop serious lung diseases or cancer after retirement. They’re 25 to 75 percent more likely to develop lung cancer than non-vets.1

2. Mesothelioma

Mesothelioma is a type of cancer from long-term asbestos exposure. It can affect the lungs, heart, or abdomen. 

Mesothelioma treatment includes chemotherapy, which can lead to:

Military personnel and vets widely used asbestos products for fireproofing and insulating during the Korean War, Vietnam War, and World War II. They also used asbestos to construct ships, planes, tanks, and barracks.

3. Hodgkin’s Disease

Veterans exposed to herbicides are at risk of Hodgkin’s disease, a cancer of the lymphatic system. Symptoms include fever, fatigue, swollen lymph nodes, and weight loss.

Chemotherapy and radiation treatment for the disease can lead to oral health complications, including:

  • Mouth ulcers
  • Cavities
  • Gum disease
  • Dry mouth
  • Soft-tissue inflammation

4. AL Amyloidosis

AL amyloidosis can directly affect the tongue, resulting in enlargement and tenderness (macroglossia). It also weakens your immune system, which increases your risk of oral thrush and other infections.

Veterans who experienced herbicide exposure are at risk of AL amyloidosis. This condition occurs when amyloid proteins deposit in organs or tissues, affecting the heart, liver, lungs, joints, and kidneys.

Let your dentist or doctor know if you are experiencing any of the following symptoms:

  • Unusual dryness in the mouth
  • Mouth ulcers or sores on the lips
  • Tongue redness or swelling
  • Altered taste or sensation in the mouth
  • White plaque coating on the tongue
  • Numbness or pain in the jaw
  • Damaged or loose teeth
  • Gums that bleed easily on probing

5. Parkinson’s Disease (PD)

Long-term exposure to herbicides increases the risk of Parkinson’s disease (PD). PD causes stiffness, shaking, and walking challenges.

PD symptoms can also affect the teeth, mouth, and jaw. Veterans with PD are also more likely to grind their teeth, which increases the risk of cavities.

The inability to control the body makes it difficult to receive dental treatment and brush regularly. This can result in poor oral hygiene, gum disease, and cavities. 

The Correlation Between Mental & Oral Health in Vets

Some veterans are at a higher risk of developing poor oral health if they have these mental illnesses:

  • Anxiety disorder
  • Depression
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
  • Drug abuse
  • Alcohol abuse

How Do Anxiety and Depression Affect Oral Health?

Approximately 14 to 16 percent of US service members who served in Afghanistan and Iraq suffer from depression or PTSD.These symptoms can worsen and persist in 10 to 20 percent of these cases, causing substantial impairment.

These are the oral health issues that vets with such conditions experience:

  • Neglected dental care: Veterans with anxiety disorders often overlook professional and at-home dental care.
  • Reduced saliva production: Some antidepressants decrease saliva production, leading to dry mouth.
  • Increased tooth decay: Lack of saliva, which protects tooth enamel and neutralizes plaque acids, can result in more tooth decay.
  • Gum disease and tooth loss: A dry mouth can also contribute to the development of gum disease and potentially lead to tooth loss.
  • Bruxism: Many with anxiety engage in bruxism, the habit of grinding and clenching teeth, typically during sleep.
  • Enamel erosion: Long-term bruxism can wear down tooth enamel, leading to cavities and thinning of the enamel.

How Can PTSD Affect Oral Health?

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) can hinder a veteran’s recovery after experiencing traumatic events. A study by periodontists at the University at Buffalo School of Dental Medicine found that PTSD-related stress leads to severe oral damage.3

This oral damage includes significant enamel erosion, caused by acidic substances demineralizing the tooth’s enamel and underlying dentin. Additionally, veterans with PTSD frequently experience dental plaque buildup and gingivitis.

Effects of Drug and Alcohol Abuse on Oral Health

In 2019, over 10 percent of veterans suffered from substance use disorder to cope with mental illness.4 VA health care provides vital resources and treatment options for veterans dealing with oral health issues arising from substance abuse.

Long-term abuse of drugs can cause serious oral health complications. Common dental conditions due to alcohol and drug abuse include:

  • Plaque and tartar (hardened plaque) buildup, which results in cavities
  • Dry mouth and bad breath
  • Tooth discoloration and stains
  • Gum diseases, such as gingivitis and periodontitis
  • Loss of blood flow to the gums and tooth roots (silent gum disease)
  • Oral cancers (cancerous ulcers affecting the mouth or throat)

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Veterans Dental Health — Common Oral Conditions & Diseases
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Veterans face unique challenges when it comes to maintaining good oral health. Exposure to herbicides and other environmental toxins, mental illness, and substance abuse can all contribute to the development of various oral health issues.

Vets must communicate their exposure during their service with their dentists. This information can help identify potential risks and provide appropriate treatment and preventive measures.

If you’re a veteran or know someone who is, it’s essential to prioritize oral health care and regularly visit the dentist. By staying on top of your oral health, you can prevent or treat any issues that may arise and maintain a healthy smile for years to come.

Last updated on February 23, 2024
8 Sources Cited
Last updated on February 23, 2024
All NewMouth content is medically reviewed and fact-checked by a licensed dentist or orthodontist to ensure the information is factual, current, and relevant.

We have strict sourcing guidelines and only cite from current scientific research, such as scholarly articles, dentistry textbooks, government agencies, and medical journals. This also includes information provided by the American Dental Association (ADA), the American Association of Orthodontics (AAO), and the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP).
  1. Innovations for Vets: Lung Cancer & Physical Trauma.” Chao Family Comprehensive Cancer Center.
  2. Inoue et al. “Veteran and Military Mental Health Issues.” StatPearls Publishing, 2023.
  3. Baker, L. “PTSD Patients Damage Teeth Through Involuntary Grinding, Clenching, UB Study Finds.” University at Buffalo, 2001.
  4. Substance Use and Military Life DrugFacts.” National Institute on Drug Abuse, 2019.
  5. Gould et al. “Depression and Anxiety Symptoms in Male Veterans and Non-Veterans: the Health and Retirement Study.” International Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry, 2015.
  6. Baker, L. “PTSD Patients Damage Teeth Through Involuntary Grinding, Clenching, UB Study Finds.” University at Buffalo, 2001.
  7. Mouth Care.” MyelomaUK, 2018.
  8. The Importance of Good Oral Health.” Access Dental Care.
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