By Razan Malkawi, M.S., CF-SLP, Rose Villa Healthcare Center, Bellflower, CA
Research indicates a clear link between oral hygiene and the overall health of patients. Poor oral hygiene can contribute to new arising medical conditions, and it may worsen the existing disease and interfere with the outcomes of treatment. Continuous education and awareness in oral hygiene are essential in our facility. We hold weekly, if not daily, in-services to discuss preventative measures collaboratively. Members of the interdisciplinary team, including but not limited to the speech therapist, occupational and physical therapists, CNAs, nurses, and the administrators, are all involved in providing evidence-based resources to assure a high quality of life for our patients here at Rose Villa Healthcare Center.

Causes of poor oral hygiene may be related to genetic, developmental and environmental factors. Most of our patients receive medications that may have side effects. For example, Xerostomia (i.e., extremely dry mouth) is a common problem that contributes to poor oral hygiene; causes include drugs, smoking, radiation therapy, diabetes Mellitus, etc. (Kapoor et al., 2014). Our role is to assist with and provide instructions and education regarding the different mouth care approaches for our patients. Mouth cleaning and care, including brushing teeth, mouth wash, and the use of sponge sticks, are all vital behaviors to prevent the existing disease’s escalation and the emergence of new ones. A speech therapist often works with patients who suffer from swallowing problems (i.e., dysphagia), as swallowing dysfunction may cause the entry of food or drink particles into the airways, and bacteria from the mouth may reach the patient’s lungs and cause aspiration pneumonia (Shun-Te HUANG, 2020). Safe swallowing strategies like posture adjustment, proper oral care, and motor-exercises contribute to treating dysphagia and reduce the prevalence of aspiration pneumonia (Shun-Te HUANG, 2020).

In a recent in-service, we discussed the necessity of providing oral care to NPO patients as a preventative measure. Education in this area is essential; one may think that if patients do not eat or drink, mouth cleaning is not a priority! Well, this is not true; NPO patients are at risk for infections, aspiration pneumonia, Xerostomia, and dehydration if oral care is neglected (Liddle, 2014). The state of NPO, along with the presence of dysphagia, may cause aspiration or pulmonary pneumonia if appropriate oral hygiene regimens are not in place. The patient may still aspirate on his/her own saliva; commonly, such incidences occur at nighttime when HOB (i.e., head of bed) is minimally elevated. As healthcare providers, let us all take the initiative to provide our patients with the highest quality of life by spreading awareness.

Refer to our SLP Dehydration Risk Free Water Protocol, for additional information including an Oral Health Assessment Tool (OHAT) for non-dental professionals.