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Related to: Ill Health and Disability, Diet and Malnutrition, NHS Health Checks, Patient Experience, Older People, Inequalities

Key Facts

  • A healthy mouth is fundamental to our overall health and wellbeing.
  • Oral diseases include tooth decay gum disease and oral cancers and are largely preventable but are still very common. 
  • Oral diseases can render everyday activities, like smiling, working and socialising, a real challenge as they have both physical and psychological effects.
  • Oral cancer is the 14th most common cancer in the UK. Incidence has increased by 39% in the last decade.  
  • People most likely to experience oral diseases are usually disadvantaged or vulnerable in other ways.
  • Significant improvements in oral health have been made, however many adults and children still suffer from pain in their mouth, tooth loss and difficulties eating. 
  • Treating oral diseases is costly to the NHS and to society.


Oral health -  having a healthy mouth, allows us to eat, drink, speak, smile and communicate.  As such it is fundamental to our wellbeing and our ability to live a full life.   

Figure 1: Oral health and health and wellbeing

Tooth wear -  involves tooth surface loss other than that from tooth decay and includes erosion, attrition and abrasion. Typically these processes may occur together with the overall result loss of tooth tissue with a change in the shape and form of the tooth. Wear is a natural process but where it is rapid and destructive, treatment may be required.

Tooth decay - The most common oral disease affecting children and adults in the UK is tooth decay.  Tooth decay happens when teeth are damaged by the bacteria in dental plaque (a sticky film that clings to teeth).  Plaque bacteria digest the sugar contained in what we eat and produce an acid.  It is this acid that damages the tooth surface, eventually leading to holes (cavities) in the teeth.1

Oral diseases - Our ability to have a healthy mouth is disturbed by oral diseases, including tooth decay, gum disease and oral cancers.  Oral diseases place a significant impact burden on both society and individuals.  They can have serious consequences for children, adults, families and society.  The impacts of oral diseases are multiple, affecting both physical and psychological wellbeing. Oral diseases are increasingly concentrated in vulnerable and socially disadvantaged groups with tooth decay in children strongly associated with socio-economic deprivation. Oral diseases are largely preventable but are still among the most commonly found chronic diseases.2

Gum disease - covers a spectrum of conditions, from swollen and bleeding gums to extensive bone loss.  At the milder end of the spectrum (namely tartar (dental calculus) accumulation, shallow pockets and bleeding gums) gum disease is not a public health problem.  At the more severe end however, it is an issue as sufferers are at significant risk of tooth loss.  Approximately 9% of the population in England suffer from severe disease. 3 Experience of gum disease varies with age, geography and socio-economic status. 

Oral cancer -  is a term used to cover a number of different types of cancer of the mouth and the top of the throat (known as the oropharynx).  This includes cancers of the lip, tongue, floor of the mouth and tonsil (which is the most common site for oral cancer to occur). Oral cancer is the 14th most common cancer in the UK and accounts for 2% of all new cases in the UK.  Oral cancer incidence in the UK has increased by 39% in the last decade and by 92% since the 1970s.4