Oral health is the state of the mouth, teeth and orofacial structures that enables individuals to perform essential functions such as eating, breathing and speaking, and encompasses psychosocial dimensions such as self-confidence, well-being and the ability to socialize and work without pain, discomfort and embarrassment. Oral health varies over the life course from early life to old age, is integral to general health and supports individuals in participating in society and achieving their potential.

Oral diseases encompass a range of diseases and conditions that include dental caries, periodontal (gum) disease, tooth loss, oral cancer, oro-dental trauma, noma and birth defects such as cleft lip and palate. Oral diseases are among the most common noncommunicable diseases worldwide, affecting an estimated 3.5 billion people. While the global burden of oral health conditions is growing, particularly in low- and middle-income countries, the overall burden of oral health conditions on services is likely to keep increasing because of population growth and ageing.

Oral diseases disproportionately affect the most vulnerable and disadvantaged populations. People of low socioeconomic status carry a higher burden of oral diseases and this association remains across the life course, from early childhood to older age, and regardless of the country’s overall income level.

Causes & Symptoms

Most oral diseases and conditions share modifiable risk factors with the leading noncommunicable diseases (diabetes, cardiovascular diseases, cancer, chronic respiratory diseases and mental disorders). These risk factors include tobacco use, alcohol consumption and unhealthy diets high in free sugars, all of which are increasing at the global level. There is a proven relationship between oral and general health. It is reported, for example, that diabetes is linked with the development and progression of periodontitis. Moreover, there is a causal link between high consumption of sugars and diabetes, obesity and dental caries.

When oral health is compromised by disease or injury, general health is also affected. The pain and discomfort associated with oral diseases make concentrating difficult, cause people to miss school or work, and can lead to social isolation. Oral diseases have a severe social and economic impact on individuals and families by increasing household expenditures and seriously affecting people’s quality of life and well-being.

WHO Response

The WHO Oral Health Programme leads the work on setting the global oral health policy agenda in close collaboration with member states and other key stakeholders. Recent momentum has led to the development of key policy documents to support countries in moving towards universal health coverage for oral health by 2030. These include the Global strategy on oral health, the Global oral health action plan and the Global oral health status report.

To support implementation of this ambitious policy agenda, the WHO Oral Health Programme supports countries by:

  • providing leadership and technical support to countries on oral health policy design and implementation;
  • monitoring disease burden, risk factors, health service use and other health trends related to oral health; and
  • reviewing current and emerging evidence including cost-effective analyses of oral health interventions to support the establishment of norms and standards.

The WHO Oral Health Programme contributes to other priority activities in countries such as:

  • supporting the phase down in the use of dental amalgam in the context of the Minamata Convention on mercury;
  • strengthening the oral health care system with a focus on integrating essential oral health care into primary health care and UHC benefit package;
  • supporting the implementation of public health interventions based on digital technologies; and
  • reinforcing integration of oral health into life-course programmes including the UN Decade of Healthy Ageing.