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Australian Indigenous HealthBulletin Alcohol and other drugs knowledge centre Yarning Places
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spacing1What do we know about oral health among Indigenous people?

Oral health is a term used for the health of a person's teeth and gums [1]. If people have unhealthy teeth and gums they will probably have some pain. Also, they may not be able to eat a variety of healthy foods or talk to other people comfortably.

Two common oral health problems are caries and gum diseases [1][2]. Caries is caused by bacteria that decay (break down) the enamel (hard outer part of the tooth); if caries is not treated the tooth will continue to decay and will eventually have to be removed [2]. Caries is caused by eating a lot of sticky and sweet foods that allow bacteria grow and multiply. Gum disease (also known as periodontal disease) is caused by bacteria that attack the gums causing them to swell and bleed. If gum disease is not treated, the gums start to break down and the teeth will become loose because the gums won't be strong enough to hold them in place. Gum disease is caused by poor oral hygiene (poor care of the teeth and gums).

Around one-in-three Indigenous children reported oral health problems in the 2008 NATSISS, and almost one-half of older Indigenous children (those aged 10-14 years) reported these problems [3]. Oral health problems were reported more often in non-remote areas than in remote areas.

The oral health of Indigenous Australians is not as good as that of non-Indigenous people [4]. The oral health of young non-Indigenous children has improved in recent years, but the oral health of young Indigenous children has generally become worse. Indigenous children have more caries in their deciduous (baby) and permanent (adult) teeth than non-Indigenous children, and their caries often more severe. Indigenous children have more decayed, missing and filled teeth than non-Indigenous children. In 2000-2003, Indigenous children also had more gingivitis (a mild form of periodontal disease) than non-Indigenous children.

Indigenous adults had more than twice as much caries as non-Indigenous adults, and had three times the number of decayed tooth surfaces, which is often because there is not enough access to dental services [5]. Indigenous adults also suffered from more periodontal disease than non-Indigenous adults. More Indigenous adults than non-Indigenous adults suffered from edentulism (losing all of their teeth), especially at younger ages.


  1. Chrisopoulos S, Harford JE (2013) Oral health and dental care in Australia: key facts and figures 2012. Canberra: Australian Institute of Health and Welfare
  2. Northern Territory Department of Health (2011) Healthy smiles: oral health and fluoride varnish information for health professionals. Darwin: Northern Territory Department of Health
  3. Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (2013) Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health performance framework 2012: detailed analyses. Canberra: Australian Institute of Health and Welfare
  4. Jamieson LM, Armfield JM, Roberts-Thomson KF (2007) Oral health of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children. Canberra: Australian Research Centre for Population Oral Health (ARCPOH)
  5. Slade GD, Spencer AJ, Roberts-Thomson KF (2007) Australia's dental generations: the national survey of adult oral health 2004-06. Canberra: Australian Institute of Health and Welfare
Last updated: 17 June 2015
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