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Dentists must check patients for alcohol abuse - expert

Patients could soon have to answer questions about their drinking habits and alcohol consumption when they visit they dentist. That is, if experts get ...

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|Apr 4|magazine9 min read

Patients could soon have to answer questions about their drinking habits and alcohol consumption when they visit they dentist.

That is, if experts get their way.

They are claiming if dentists quizzed their patients about the amount of alcohol that they drink and the effect drinking has on them, it could help to diagnose certain health problems at an earlier stage.

It is the belief of the researchers – led by Professor Jack Shepherd from the University of Cardiff – that routine dental checkups put dentists in an ideal position to spot cancer of the mouth, larynx and oesophagus.

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“This provides the primary dental healthcare team with unique opportunities to intervene, particularly as asking patients about their levels of alcohol consumption is a routine component of medical history taking,” the researchers said in the Royal College of Surgeons' Dental Journal.

Binge drinking is known to cause such illnesses and it can also lead to tooth decay, enamel erosion and cavities.

In addition to spotting the warning signs of these ailments, the research team are arguing the practice could have wider benefits by preventing injuries that occur while people are drunk – from things like falling over, drink driving and fighting.

If a dentist felt that a patient was putting their health at risk through binge drinking, they could refer them to their GP or a counselling service.

The team added: “After screening, the individuals identified as misusing alcohol could then be offered treatment, including brief motivational advice sessions delivered by hygienists or dental nurses.

“Liaison with the patients' medical practitioner could also result in referral for specialist care should the patient demonstrate alcohol dependence or depression, for example.”

Meanwhile, Professor Shepherd commented: “Excessive alcohol consumption can lead to cancer of the mouth, larynx and oesophagus and dentists may be the first to notice these conditions.

“We need to introduce an alcohol screening tool that reliably detects hazardous and harmful drinking alongside effective treatment.”

Peter Ward, the Chief Executive of the British Dental Association (BDA) echoed Shepherd’s thoughts.

 “We agree that the dental examination is an ideal time to promote oral and general health messages,” he said.

“It is well recognised that excessive alcohol consumption, alongside smoking, increases the risk of developing oral cancer and gum disease so the dentist has always had an important role to play in reinforcing these health messages and detecting such cancers.

“The opportunity for dentists to concentrate more on preventive messages is currently being tested in dental pilots in England.”

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