Posts for: April, 2019
Drugs play an indispensable role in treating disease. For example, life without antibiotics would be much more precarious—common infections we think nothing of now would suddenly become life-threatening.
But even the most beneficial drug can have disruptive side effects. Antibiotics in particular can cause a rare but still disturbing one: a growth on the tongue that at first glance looks like dark hair. In fact, it's often called "black hairy tongue."
It isn't hair—it's an overgrowth of naturally occurring structures on the tongue called filiform papillae. These tiny bumps on the tongue's upper surface help grip food while you're chewing. They're normally about a millimeter in length and tend to be scraped down in the normal course of eating. As they're constantly growing, they replenish quickly.
We're not sure how it occurs, but it seems with a small portion of the population the normal growth patterns of the papillae become unbalanced after taking antibiotics, particularly those in the tetracycline family. Smoking and poor oral hygiene also seem to contribute to this growth imbalance. As a result, the papillae can grow as long as 18 millimeters with thin shafts resembling hair. It's also common for food debris and bacteria to adhere to this mass and discolor it in shades of yellow, green, brown or black.
While it's appearance can be bizarre or even frightening, it's not health-threatening. It's mostly remedied by removing the original cause, such as changing to a different antibiotic or quitting smoking, and gently cleaning the tongue everyday by brushing it or using a tongue scraper you can obtain from a pharmacy.
One word of caution: don't stop any medication you suspect of a side effect without first discussing it with your prescribing doctor. While effects like black hairy tongue are unpleasant, they're not harmful—and you don't want to interfere with treatments for problems that truly are.
As your dental provider, we're always alert for signs of tooth decay or periodontal (gum) disease, the two leading causes of tooth loss. But we're also watching for less common conditions that could be just as devastating.
Root resorption falls into this latter category: it occurs when a tooth's root structure begins to break down and dissolve (or resorb). It's a normal process in primary ("baby") teeth to allow them to loosen and give way when permanent teeth are ready to erupt.
It's not normal, though, for permanent teeth. Something internally or—more commonly—externally causes the root structure to break down. External resorption usually occurs at the neck-like or cervical area of a tooth around the gum line. Known as external cervical resorption (ECR), it can first appear as small, pinkish spots on the enamel. These spots contain abnormal cells that cause the actual damage to the root.
We don't fully understand how root resorption occurs, but we have identified certain factors that favor its development. For example, it may develop if a person has experienced too much force against the teeth during orthodontic treatment. Injury to the periodontal ligaments, teeth-grinding habits or some dental procedures like internal bleaching may also contribute to later root resorption.
Early diagnosis is a major part of effective treatment for root resorption. Because it's usually painless and easily overlooked, resorption is often too difficult to detect in its early stages without x-rays—a good reason for regular dental exams. Beginning spots or lesions are usually small enough to surgically remove the tissue cells causing the damage and then filled with a tooth-colored filling material. If it has advanced further, we may also need to perform a root canal treatment.
At some point, the damage from root resorption can be too great, in which case it might be best to remove the tooth and replace it with a dental implant or similar restoration. That's why catching root resorption early through regular dental exams can give you the edge for saving your tooth.
If you would like more information on diagnosing and treating root resorption, please contact us or schedule an appointment for a consultation. You can also learn more about this topic by reading the Dear Doctor magazine article “Root Resorption: An Unusual Phenomenon.”