Cigarette smokers who quit the habit may reap the benefit in the form of healthier gums. This may help them hold on to their teeth over the long run, according to a new study.

Researchers found smokers with gum disease who quit smoking experienced a significant improvement in their gum disease within one year of quitting compared with those who kept smoking.

"Our study shows that people should stop smoking now if they want to increase their chances of keeping their teeth into old age," says researcher Philip Preshaw, a clinical lecturer in periodontology at Newcastle University's School of Dental Sciences in England, in a news release.

"Dentists have known for some time that smokers have worse oral and gum health than nonsmokers, but for the first time we have shown that quitting smoking together with routine gum treatment results in healthier gums," says Preshaw.

Gum disease is caused by bacteria found in plaque, the sticky white substance that builds up on teeth without proper cleaning. The bacteria causes the gums to become inflamed, and eventually the gums begin to recede from the teeth, resulting in gaps between the teeth and gums that gradually destroy the bone that holds teeth in place.

Over time, this process causes teeth to become loose, fall out, or require extraction.

Read WebMD's "10 Little-Known Reasons to Quit Smoking"

Quitting Smoking Helps Teeth

Researchers say smokers are up to six times more likely to develop gum disease than nonsmokers because smoking dampens the body's immune system and makes it harder for it to fight back against the disease.

In the study, which appears in the August issue of the Journal of Clinical Periodontology, researchers followed 49 cigarette smokers being treated for gum disease. All of the smokers expressed an interest in quitting and were offered encouragement to quit smoking in the form of counseling, nicotine therapy, and/or medication at the start of the study.

A year later, one-fifth of the participants had quit smoking. Researchers found a significant improvement in gum health and decrease in some gum disease symptoms among the smokers who had quit compared with those who kept smoking.

Because gum disease is often painless until discovered by a dentist, researchers say many smokers may be unaware of the impact their smoking can have on their oral health.

"But the increased risk of tooth loss may be enough to persuade many to quit smoking. Dentists must do all they can to inform patients of the risks and to assist patients who smoke to stop before the disease takes hold," says Amanda Sandford, Research Manager for Action on Smoking and Health U.K., in the release.

Read WebMD's "Quit Smoking: Your Guide to Kicking the Habit"

By Jennifer Warner, reviewed by Brunilda Nazario, MD

SOURCES: Preshaw, P. Journal of Clinical Periodontology, August 2005; vol 32: pp 869-879. News release, University of Newcastle Upon Tyne.