Alicia Hebner was just 34 when she began wearing full dentures after having her last seven teeth pulled.
She first started losing her adult teeth during her first pregnancy at the age of 21. She had just gotten married the year before.
“We had our first daughter,” Hebner said. “That’s when I noticed my teeth starting to hurt more, being more sensitive. They were getting yellow really fast. And they felt like they were getting soft really fast.”
Two teeth soon fell out within two weeks of each other and her dental health continued to deteriorate with each of her four pregnancies.
“Every pregnancy I've had, I've lost teeth,” Hebner said. “During the years between the pregnancies, I don't really remember my teeth doing much other than crumbling and falling apart.”
Her insurance did not cover expensive tooth restoration procedures, but it did cover getting the decayed teeth pulled. So whatever teeth didn’t naturally fall out, she got pulled.
Tooth loss and rotting during pregnancy is not uncommon and it’s primarily caused by pregnancy gingivitis. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, up to 75% of people experience gingivitis during pregnancy. Hormonal changes common during pregnancy can cause gums to loosen their grip around the tooth and hasten decaying.
How to identify and treat pregnancy gingivitis
“Pregnancy gingivitis is really distinctive,” Dr. Catrise Austin, a dentist based in New York City, told TODAY Health in a Zoom interview. She said key signs are redness, swelling, tenderness and teeth decaying or becoming loose. And that loosening can lead to teeth becoming mobile and even falling out in some cases.
“Those are key signs that you have gum disease,” Austin said.
Since pregnancy gingivitis occurs naturally, there’s not much that can stop it once it’s already present. But there are ways to manage it.
Austin recommends increased dental visits for women experiencing those symptoms: “I know we recommend as a dentist that you go to the dentist every six months. Sometimes we want to monitor you a little bit more frequently because we want to control the bacterial levels.”
Dr. Vanessa Creaven, a dentist based in England and Ireland, said changes in gum composition during pregnancy are normal, and those changes happen during other hormonal periods as well. She said people often separate oral care from their overall health, but they’re all related.
“There's very much an intricate link between your mouth and your body,” Creaven said. “One area I always see a huge change in is hormone changes. So that might be going through puberty, definitely going through pregnancy and even going through menopause. And those fluctuations in hormones are reflected within the gums of our patients.”
Creaven created a toothpaste specifically to use during pregnancy and suggests using toothpastes that target gum and tooth restoration.
How likely is tooth loss?
Dr. Todd Shatkin, Hebner’s dentist, said her case is an anomaly, but pregnancy does take a toll on the body and pre-existing conditions do increase the chance of tooth loss.
“When you go through pregnancy, a lot of things change in a woman's body,” Shatkin said. “You have a lot of hormones. You use up a lot of nutrients in your body to feed the child. And sometimes you lose calcium in your bones and in your teeth, and you can get more recurrent decay. You also have pregnancy gingivitis, where the gums get a little swollen and uncomfortable, they bleed more easily. And so because of all of that, sometimes you do have dental problems.”
"I'm not saying that happens all the time. Certainly it doesn't. And that's good," Shatkin explained. "But in some situations it does if your teeth are more prone to decay, if you have gum disease to begin with, or gum problems. And a lot of times, I think women are more focused on their unborn child and taking care of their health rather than their own dental health.”
In Hebner’s case, she said she was predisposed to the tooth loss and rotting she experienced, and pregnancy only accelerated decaying. She described being malnourished as a child and into adulthood due to allergies and being a picky eater.
“I think from my experiences in childhood, being very limited on what I ate, I think that impacted my health,” Hebner said. “I didn't always eat right ... I looked healthy. That's the thing, people can look so healthy and look amazing. But you can't always know what's going on inside the body and how it's going to react once you're pregnant.”
Hebner has been sharing her story to her 2.4 million TikTok followers, inspiring others to practice self-love.
Shatkin said Hebner’s history played a big role in her problems and once that happens, it's hard to fix it. He said people can prepare their bodies before pregnancy by eating balanced diets loaded with fruits and vegetables, protein and some carbohydrates. He said not to substitute poor eating with vitamins and supplements and that a marker of healthy eating is that vitamins aren’t needed.
“But when you're pregnant, you do need some extra vitamins. And we do recommend neonatal vitamins to be taken,” he said.
The dentists and Hebner recommend that pregnant people visit a dentist early and often. Hebner stressed not to let any potential tooth loss change family planning goals.
“If you want to start a family, focus on all those positive things, all those good things,” Hebner said. “No matter what happens health-wise ... Having children far outweighs anything that could happen."