Oral Thrush: What Is It?
The lining of your mouth may end up accumulating a fungus called Candida albicans , which is a condition more commonly called oral thrush . This condition causes lesions, usually on the tongue or inner cheeks, that are white in color. If you scrape your tongue regularly, these lesions can be painful and may even bleed slightly. Oral thrush, if left untreated, can also affect other areas of your mouth like the back of your throat, your tonsils, your gums and the roof of your mouth.
While oral thrush is a condition that can affect any part of the population, it’s more commonly found in people who have compromised (or weakened) immune systems, people who wear dentures, those who use corticosteroid inhalers or infants. Oral thrush can also appear in those who are undergoing chemotherapy or radiation treatments, have a documented condition of persistent dry mouth (xerostomia) or are smokers.
Oral Thrush Causes
Oral thrush can occur when a few things happen. A weakened immune system (by disease or drugs like prednisone) or the use of antibiotics that can alter the naturally occurring balance of microorganisms in the body can both be causes.
The natural, protective mechanisms can fail, causing the balance between “good” and “bad” microbes to shift dramatically one way or another. Normally, your immune system works to repel harmful viruses or bacteria, but a weakened immune system makes this harder, which can allow the fungus that causes oral thrush to grow.
Vaginal yeast infections, diabetes, most forms of cancer, and HIV/AIDS are all conditions that weaken the body and make it more susceptible to oral thrush.
Oral Thrush in Adults With Weakened Immune Systems
Oral thrush can spread within your body, affecting the lungs, liver and digestive tract. If the infection spreads to the intestines, it may lead to malnutrition and make you weaker.
Depending upon the severity of your infection, you may be prescribed antifungal medication, such as tablets, lozenges or a mouthrinse intended for swallowing. You might also be prescribed amphotericin B, which is used frequently used for late-stage HIV infection and infections that have become resistant to more common antifungal medications.
Because some antifungal medications can cause liver damage, your doctor will probably perform blood tests and monitor your liver function (especially if the infection has spread to the liver). This is also true if the treatment is expected to take longer than normal or if you have a history of liver disease.
Oral Thrush Symptoms in Children and Adults
Symptoms of oral thrush may not appear immediately in some cases. Conversely, you may end up developing signs and symptoms completely suddenly. Here are some telltale signs you may be experiencing oral thrush:
White, creamy lesions appearing anywhere in the mouthNew pains during regular mouth motionsBleeding if lesions are scraped or rubbedFor denture wearers, cracking or redness near the corners of the mouthDry mouthA noticeable loss of taste when eating or drinking
While most cases of oral thrush are in the most visible area of the mouth, the lesions can spread down into the esophagus. This can make it hard to swallow or feel like food is stuck in your throat. This occurs in some of the most severe cases — if you are experiencing either of these symptoms, you should see your dentist or primary care physician for treatment immediately.
While waiting to be treated, there are a couple things you can do to alleviate any pain you may be feeling. Try eating unsweetened yogurt or taking capsules of acidophilus. While these shouldn’t be considered actual treatment or cures, both can help restore your body’s normal bacterial flora levels. If the infection persists, your doctor will most likely prescribe an antifungal medication or antibiotic to assist.
Oral Thrush Symptoms in Infants and Breastfeeding Mothers
Infants may have trouble feeding or be fussier and more irritable than usual if oral thrush is at play. If they have oral thrush, they will likely have the white lesions. Mothers should pay close attention because oral thrush can be passed through breastfeeding. And if the infant passes it on to the mother and then heals, the mother can then inadvertently pass it back to the infant.
If you’re a breastfeeding mother, look for these signs and symptoms:
Itchy, sensitive or unusually red nipplesShiny or flaky skin found around the areolaHighly unusual pain during nursing or between feedingsDeep, stabbing pains within the breast itself
If these lesions appear within your mouth or your child’s mouth, make an appointment with your doctor or dentist immediately. In older children or adolescents, seek medical care because a possible underlying condition could be diabetes.
Because treatment in this instance will have to cover two people, doctors can use several methods. To start, your doctor may prescribe two antifungal medications: one cream for your breasts and another medication for your child.
If you’re a mother who’s still breastfeeding, use a nursing pad to help prevent the infection from spreading to your clothing. Stay away from nursing pads with plastic barriers because they can make the infection grow. If your pads are not disposable, be sure to wash them (and your bras) in hot water with bleach to prevent the spread of oral thrush.
If your child is using bottles and pacifiers as well as breastfeeding, make sure to wash anything they put their mouth on in a solution of equal parts water and vinegar daily. Once cleaned, allow them to air dry to help prevent fungus growth. This should also be done with any kind of breast pump materials you may be using, especially those parts that detach easily for cleaning.
Talking to Your Doctor or Dentist
By now you’ve determined whether you have an oral condition that needs to be looked at by a medical professional. Keep a list of any symptoms you’ve experienced, including anything that may seem unrelated; your medical professional will know if they’re related. This includes writing down nonmedical events such as experiencing more stress than usual, what’s causing that stress or if you’ve been around people with weakened immune systems.
You will need to make a list of any medications you are taking to share with your doctor. In addition, write down any questions you want to ask your doctor or dentist. This can help you get all the answers you’re seeking and ensure you leave your appointment feeling more satisfied, regardless of if you have oral thrush.
Your doctor may ask you questions to narrow down your possible condition based on the symptoms they witness and those that you describe to them. Be as candid and honest as you can be with your answers to help you get through faster and with fewer complications.
If you cannot be diagnosed just by your doctor looking into your mouth, they’ll certainly take a small sample and either examine the sample themselves or have it sent out for further testing.
If the infection has spread beyond the most immediate area of the mouth and down into the esophagus, your doctor will likely do a couple of tests. First, they’ll take a culture sample by swabbing the back of the throat to determine which bacteria or fungi (if any) are causing your symptoms. Next, you may have an endoscopic examination, which is where the doctor uses an endoscope (or flexible, lighted tube) to explore your esophagus, stomach and upper part of the small intestine to see how far the infection has spread.
Lifestyle and Natural Home Remedies
If you’re currently in the middle of an oral thrush outbreak, practicing proper oral hygiene like brushing twice a day and flossing at least once a day can help eliminate any extra food or drink debris from your teeth or gum line. Rather than use a standard mouthwash, dissolve half a teaspoon of table salt into one cup of warm water. Rinse your mouth with the mixture and then spit it out after two minutes of swishing.
Oral thrush is contagious and can spread deep into the body, causing serious damage and preventing you from proper nutrition (if it spreads far enough) due to uncomfortable conditions internally. If you think you may be experiencing one or more symptoms, contact your dentist immediately to get a second opinion. When caught early enough, your dentist can help alleviate your symptoms and put a stop to the infection.
This article is intended to promote understanding of and knowledge about general oral health topics. It is not intended to be a substitute for professional advice, diagnosis or treatment. Always seek the advice of your dentist or other qualified healthcare provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition or treatment.