Local News

UNC Dental School Teaching Students To Look At More Than Just Cavities

Posted June 22, 2006

— Many people spend more time with their dentist than with their doctor. The UNC School of Dentistry teaches students to look for more than just cavities.

Dr. Valerie Murrah spends more time behind a microscope than she does hovering over dental patients. She is an oral pathologist, looking for problems like leukemia.

Bleeding and bruising in the mouth can be one of the first signs of leukemia -- a blood disorder. Small white patches could be early signs of cancer risk.

"The soft tissues are a mirror of the patient's overall health," Murrah said.

Murrah said a full exam inside the mouth -- and around the face and neck -- should be a part of every dental exam. She said lymph nodes can swell when there's infection in the body.

"For the lymph nodes, it will feel sort of like a neck rub for the patient," she said.

Some lumps or lesions are not always cancerous, but they need to be checked in a lab. Murrah found a cancerous one from a patient who smoked.

"So someone who smokes at all is going to have multiple times the risk factor of a non-smoker," she said.

Sabrina Robinson does not smoke, but she has braces that can make flossing down to the gum line a challenge.

"We're looking to see if there's redness. She has a little bit of redness there," Murrah said.

Everything else checks out fine for Sabrina, but the kind of exam could easily save a patient's life if problems are caught early.

Murrah said dentists can also spot early signs of sexually transmitted diseases, including HIV-AIDS, through oral exams.

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