One of the most common and anguish-filled birth defects is a cleft lip or palate (roof of the mouth). Not only do clefts disrupt the normality of a child’s facial appearance, they can also lead to problems with chewing, speech and the long-term health of teeth and gums.
A cleft is a tissue gap that occurs during fetal development, usually in the first trimester, in which parts of the baby’s face fail to unite. Why this occurs is not fully understood, but vitamin imbalances in the mother, exposure to radiation or other toxic environments, or infections are all believed to play a role.
Facial clefts are classified as either incomplete, in which there is some but not full tissue fusion, or complete, with no fusion at all. A cleft can be unilateral, affecting only one side of the face, or bi-lateral, affecting both sides. During infancy a cleft can adversely affect a child’s ability to nurse, and it sometimes disrupts breathing. As the child grows, speech patterns may be severely disrupted and their teeth and bite may not develop properly.
Fortunately, there have been dramatic advances in cleft repair over the past sixty years. It’s actually a process that can span a child’s entire developmental years and involve the expertise of a number of surgical and dental specialists. For a cleft lip, the initial surgical repair to realign and join the separated tissues usually occurs around three to six months of age; repair of a cleft palate (where the gap extends into the roof of the mouth) between 6 and 12 months.
Subsequent procedures may be needed in later years to refine earlier results and to accommodate the mouth’s continuing growth. At some point the treatment focus shifts to cosmetic enhancement (which can include implants, crown or bridgework) and periodontal health, to ensure gum tissues that support teeth and gums aren’t compromised by the effects of the cleft or its treatment.
At the end of this long process, something of a miracle may seem to occur: a young person’s once disfigured mouth transforms into a beautiful smile. It’s a chance for them to gain a normal life — and a new lease on physical, emotional and oral health.
Saliva probably doesn’t rate high on your amazement meter. You’re more likely to notice its absence and the dry irritation that results.
But you might be more impressed with this unsung bodily fluid if you knew all the things it does. It’s definitely a multi-tasker, performing a number of jobs (including aiding in digestion) that not only keep your oral health on track, but your general well-being too. And there are even new testing methods where saliva may even tell us when you’re not doing so well.
Here are 3 more tasks your saliva is doing for your mouth right now that truly makes it amazing.
Cleansing. Your teeth’s chewing action shreds food so it’s easier to digest. But that also leaves behind tiny particles in your mouth. Bacteria feast on these particles (especially carbohydrates like sugar) and produce acid as a byproduct, which can increase your risk of tooth decay. Saliva serves as a kind of “rinse cycle” for your mouth, helping to wash a good bit of these errant particles down your throat and away from hungry bacteria.
Defense. Speaking of bacteria, your mouth is home to millions of them. While most are harmless or even beneficial, a fraction can harm your teeth and gums. Saliva is your first line of defense, emitting an antibody known as Immunoglobulin A that targets these bacteria. Saliva also produces an antibacterial substance called lyzozyme that prevents bacteria from growing.
Enamel Protection. Although it’s the strongest substance in the body, your teeth’s enamel can’t withstand the effects of mouth acid, the by-product of bacterial feeding and growth. Acid levels naturally rise after eating; but even this sudden rise can begin the process of demineralization where minerals in enamel dissolve. Saliva saves the day by first neutralizing the acid and restoring the mouth’s normal pH in about thirty minutes to an hour. It also helps restore minerals in enamel, a process called remineralization. It’s all in a day’s work for this remarkable fluid.
If you would like more information on the importance of saliva to oral health, 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 “Saliva: How it is used to Diagnose Disease.”