HIV/AIDS & Oral Health

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People with human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), the virus that causes acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS), are at special risk for oral health problems. Some of the most common oral problems for people with HIV/AIDS are: chronic dry mouth, gingivitis, bone loss around the teeth (periodontitis), canker sores, oral warts, fever blisters, oral candidiasis (thrush), hairy leukoplakia (which causes a rough, white patch on the tongue), and dental caries. Combination antiretroviral therapy, which is used to treat the HIV condition and restore immune system function, has made some oral problems less common. Oral conditions can be painful, annoying, and can lead to other problems.

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People with HIV/AIDS have an increased risk for oral health problems because HIV/AIDS weakens the immune system and makes it harder to fight off infection.

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Oral health problems may include:

Photo Description It could be: What & where? Painful? Contagious? Treatment
Click to enlarge Red sores
Aphthous (AF-thus) ulcers. Also known as Canker Sores Red sores that might also have a yellow-gray film on top. They are usually on the moveable parts of the mouth such as the tongue or inside of the cheeks and lips. Yes No Mild cases – Over-the-counter cream or prescription mouthwash that contains corticosteroids; More severe cases – corticosteroids in a pill form
Click to enlarge Red sores
Herpes (HER-peez) A viral infection Red sores usually on the roof of the mouth. They are sometimes on the outside of the lips, where they are called fever blisters. Sometimes Yes Prescription pill can reduce healing time and frequency of outbreaks.
Click to enlarge White hairlike growth Hairy Leukoplakia (Loo-ko-PLAY-key-uh) caused by the Epstein-Barr virus White patches that do not wipe away; sometimes very thick and “hairlike.” Usually appear on the side of the tongue or sometimes inside the cheeks and lower lip. Not usually No Mild cases – not usually required; More severe cases – a prescription pill that may reduce severity of symptoms. In some severe cases, a pain reliever might also be required.
Click to enlarge White creamy or bumpy patches like cottage cheese Candidiasis (CAN-di-dye-uh-sis), a fungal (yeast) infection – Also known as thrush White or yellowish patches (or can sometimes be red). If wiped away, there will be redness or bleeding underneath. They can appear anywhere in the mouth. Sometimes, a burning feeling No Mild cases – prescription antifungal lozenge or mouthwash; More severe cases – prescription antifungal pills.
Click to enlarge Warts   Small, white, gray, or pinkish rough bumps that look like cauliflower. They can appear inside the lips and on other parts of the mouth. Not usually Possibly Inside the mouth – a doctor can remove them surgically or use “cryosurgery” – a way of freezing them off; On the lips – a prescription cream that will wear away the wart. Warts can return after treatment.

Photos courtesy of Dr. David Reznik,; and Dr. Jeff Lennox

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The most common oral problems linked with HIV can be treated. So talk with your doctor or dentist about what treatment might work for you.

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Helpful Tips

In addition to the problems listed in the table above, you may experience dry mouth. Dry mouth happens when you don’t have enough saliva, or spit, to keep your mouth wet. Saliva helps you chew and digest food, protects teeth from decay, and prevents infections by controlling bacteria and fungi in the mouth. Without enough saliva, you could develop tooth decay or other infections and might have trouble chewing and swallowing. Your mouth might also feel sticky or dry and have a burning feeling, and you may have cracked, chapped lips.

To help with a dry mouth, try these things:

  • Sip water or sugarless drinks often.
  • Chew sugarless gum or suck on sugarless hard candy.
  • Avoid tobacco.
  • Avoid alcohol.
  • Avoid salty foods.
  • Use a humidifier at night.

Talk to your doctor or dentist about prescribing artificial saliva, which may help keep your mouth moist.

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Additional Resources

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Last Reviewed
July 2018