Sneezes and Wheezes: How Oral Hygiene Helps During Cold and Flu Season

It’s that special time of year… when airborne germs fill the air. As people escape the weather outside, they cluster together inside. Colds and flu are just a sneeze away from their next host in workplaces, schools and homes. The Centers for Disease Control reports that flu cases have multiplied in the last several weeks. And hospitalization rates among children are higher compared to this point in past flu seasons.

What to do? You know the importance of hand washing and teaching your kids to sneeze into the crook of their elbows. But did you know that prevention and treatment for colds and flu go hand in hand with good oral hygiene?

You might think, Really? While you and your family are battling a virus, is it even relevant to pay attention to oral hygiene? Yep! You still need to brush, floss and rinse. Speaking of brushing… Did you know that toothbrushes play a big role in keeping you healthy during flu season? And that rinsing can take many forms to keep your mouth—and the total you—healthy?

Let’s take a look at maintaining good oral hygiene during a cold or the flu. And let’s discuss how it helps you avoid or recover from all those nasty viruses and bacteria out there. But first, let’s review cold and flu basics.

Is It Just a Cold? Or Is It the Flu?

A cold can sneak up on you gradually. “My throat feels scratchy—am I getting a cold?” But the flu hits with a bang, leaving no doubt. You’re SICK. 

In addition to the runny nose, congestion and sore throat of a cold, flu symptoms include body aches, chills, fever and fatigue. (Lesions in the mouth may be confused with cold or flu symptoms. But these are more likely due to herpes simplex, which occurs in 50–80% of the adult population.)

Points to remember:

  • A cold can come on gradually, with symptoms mainly in the head.
  • The sudden onset of the flu makes you feel like you’ve been run over by a proverbial truck, with symptoms throughout the body.
  • High and/or prolonged fevers require a trip to the doctor. In children, watch for dehydration and breathing problems. Call a doctor if they’re not eating or drinking, or if they seem disoriented.

Colds, Flu and Oral Health

With some adjustments, measures that usually help when you’re sick also benefit your oral health. Score! We need those little wins when we’re down for the count.

Drinking fluids helps speed your recovery from colds and flu and keeps your mouth healthy. The same cold medications that dry up your sinuses also dry your mouth. When your mouth is dry, acids and sugar have a chance to linger, damaging enamel and encouraging cavities. So drink, drink, drink—it’s doubly important.

Water is the best medicine, but as the hours tick away you may want some variety. Sugar-free sports drinks with electrolytes can help your body stay hydrated. And warm drinks can soothe and comfort.

For centuries, tea with honey and lemon has been a magic balm for sore throats. But honey is sugar, and lemon is acid. Make sure to brush (for sugar) or rinse (for acid) after a “special tea.” Or try herbal teas that taste sweet without sugar. Blends with cinnamon, rooibos, licorice root, star anise or chamomile all have a natural sweetness.

Cough drops help keep saliva flowing, which rinses the mouth, which neutralizes acids and prevents cavities. But again, watch the sugar.  Sucking on cough drops with sugar are like eating hard candy. Medications, too, often contain sugar. Look for sugar-free brands. Or brush and rinse after you swig down that sucrose-laden cough syrup.

Don’t brush immediately after vomiting. Vomiting or diarrhea can accompany the flu, especially in children. After vomiting, it’s important not to brush right away. Brushing spreads the stomach acid that just coated your teeth. Instead, swish with water, diluted mouthwash or water mixed with a teaspoon of baking soda. Spit. Wait at least 30 minutes before brushing. 

Handwashing throughout the day helps prevent the spread of flu and colds. But it’s also important to wash your hands before and after you brush and floss. Keeping your hands clean helps prevent disease-causing bacteria from entering your mouth.

Toothbrushes—in Sickness and in Health

The average toothbrush can have 10+ million bacteria, including E. coli and staph. And according to the National Institutes of Health, your mouth is home to 700 different species of microbes. Amazing and literally sickening.

It makes sense to institute a “no sharing” rule for food, cups and plates during flu season. That rule should apply to toothbrushes at all times of the year. Also, consider getting personal tubes of toothpaste for everyone in your family. When Junior’s toothbrush touches the opening of the tube, he shares his bacteria with his little sister. You can try training everyone to keep their toothbrush at a sterile distance. But it’s probably easier for kids (and grownups, too) if they have their own tube of toothpaste.

Toothbrush Hygiene

Flu viruses can live on moist surfaces for up to 72 hours. Allow your toothbrush to air dry, head up. Give it plenty of air circulation—don’t store it in a medicine cabinet or a travel-type case that encloses the head. 

If your family stores toothbrushes together in a single container, or even in close proximity, they can “catch” bacteria from one another when the heads touch. And not to get gross, but toothbrushes stored too close to the toilet can catch those germs. Teach your little ones (and your big ones) to flush with the lid down. This may seem like an extreme measure, but not when you consider the consequences.

Rinse your brush well after brushing and flush food particles down the sink. Soak your brush in antibacterial mouthwash to cut down on germs. Some people run their brushes through a dishwasher or “sterilize” them in the microwave, but brushes aren’t made for such abuse. You can, however, find an FDA-approved sanitizing device if you want to zap lingering germs.

After an illness, chances of reinfecting yourself with your own toothbrush are low. But since you should replace brushes every three to four months, you’re probably due anyway. When in doubt, throw it out!

Protect Your Oral Health

Ok, now you know how to store your toothbrush… why you shouldn’t brush immediately after acid coats your teeth… and why hydrating when you’re sick helps your teeth as well as your body. Good oral hygiene can help you avoid catching the nasty bugs floating around this time of year. But if you do catch one, good practices will help you avoid spreading it to others and speed your own recovery. Take heart—spring is right around the corner! 

Do you think your teeth have suffered during a recent illness? Do you have general questions about your oral health? Give TrueCare Dentistry a call and set up an appointment. We’ll check your teeth and put your mind at ease.


Exceptional Is Not Uncommon

At TrueCare Dentistry, you will experience exceptional dental care that is focused on maximum patient comfort. We offer the best chair-side manner from check-in to check-out. Contact us for an appointment or to learn more: 919.859.1330