What is trench mouth?

teeth and mouth that are infected
A person suffering from the symptoms of trench mouth should see a dentist immediately because it can spread to the cheeks, lips or jawbone if left untreated.

"What's in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet."

A name may be nothing but an artificial convention in William Shakespeare's eyes, but when it comes to describing a medical condition, sometimes the name says it all. Take Jumping Frenchmen Disorder, for example. Most people have never heard of this rare ailment that affects a person's automatic response system, but they wouldn't be surprised to learn its symptoms include an exaggerated startle or jump reflex [source: WebMD].


Likewise, one doesn't necessarily need to know exactly what trench mouth is to be fairly certain it's not a good thing. Formally known as Vincent's stomatitis and necrotizing ulcerative gingivitis -- but nicknamed trench mouth because of its prevalence among World War I soldiers who were stuck in the trenches without the means to take care of their teeth -- trench mouth is the uglier, lesser known cousin of oral infections like gingivitis and periodontitis [source: Mayo Clinic].

Nowadays, trench mouth is rare throughout most of the world, but it remains common among teenagers and young adults in developing countries where people suffer from poor nutrition and inadequate living conditions [source: Mayo Clinic].

Read on to learn about the symptoms of trench mouth.


Trench Mouth Symptoms

The human mouth normally contains a balance of different bacteria, but trench mouth occurs when this balance is upset. Oral bacteria build up, which damages gum tissue, causing it to become infected and develop ulcers [source: PubMed Health].

Trench mouth is often quite painful. Symptoms can come on suddenly and include [source: Mayo Clinic]:


  • Bad breath
  • Foul taste in the mouth
  • Large ulcers between teeth that fill with food, bacteria and damaged gum tissue
  • Swollen, painful gums
  • Grayish film on the gums, caused by decomposed gum tissue
  • Significant bleeding of the gums when irritated

Fever and swollen lymph nodes in the head and neck are less common symptoms, but they do occur.

In addition to poor hygiene and inadequate nutrition, it's believed that viruses may also be at play in allowing the bacteria to grow, so people with compromised immune systems may be at risk for trench mouth. Doctors believe it can also result from emotional stress and smoking [source: PubMed Health].

A person suffering from the symptoms of trench mouth should see a dentist immediately because it can spread to the cheeks, lips or jawbone if left untreated [source: PubMed Health].

Treatment of trench mouth is discussed on the next page.


Trench Mouth Treatment

Once a dentist confirms a trench mouth diagnosis through X-rays or a throat swab culture, treatment consists of medication, teeth cleaning and, in rare instances, surgery. Antibiotics are frequently prescribed to get rid of the bacteria and prevent the infection from spreading. A person with trench mouth may also need over-the-counter or prescription pain relievers, which are important so that he or she can eat properly and resume good dental care habits [source: Mayo Clinic].

Teeth and gums are thoroughly but gently cleaned to remove dead gum tissue and help reduce pain and swelling. Once the inflammation subsides, the cleaning is followed by scaling and root planning, during which the dentist first removes plaque and tartar from beneath the gum line and then smoothes roughened teeth surfaces [source: Mayo Clinic].


To make treatment as effective as possible, people with trench mouth should take the following precautions [source: PubMed Health]:

  • Don't smoke or use other tobacco products.
  • Avoid carbonated beverages and alcohol.
  • Don't eat spicy or very hot foods.
  • Take all medications as recommended.
  • Stay hydrated.

Trench mouth is easily prevented by good oral hygiene and other healthy habits, including brushing at least twice a day, flossing, getting regular dental cleanings, avoiding tobacco, eating a healthy diet and managing stress [source: PubMed Health].


Lots More Information

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More Great Links

  • Hendrick, Bill. "Brushing Teeth May Keep Away Heart Disease." WebMD. May 27, 2010. http://www.webmd.com/oral-health/news/20100527/brushing-teeth-may-keep-heart-disease-away
  • Mayo Clinic. "Trench Mouth." (Sept. 19, 2011) http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/trench-mouth/DS00457
  • PubMed Health. "Trench Mouth." Feb. 22, 2010 (Sept. 19, 2011) http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmedhealth/PMH0002039
  • Warren, Paul R. "A Practice-Based Study of a Power Toothbrush: Assessment of Effectiveness and Acceptance." Journal of the American Dental Association. March 1, 2000. http://jada.ada.org/content/131/3/389.full
  • WebMD. "Jumping Frenchmen of Maine." (Sept. 20, 2011) http://www.webmd.com/a-to-z-guides/jumping-frenchmen-of-maine