The Pros and Cons of Using Mouth Swabs For Elderly Oral Care
The Pros and Cons of Using Mouth Swabs For Elderly Oral Care

The Pros and Cons of Using Mouth Swabs For Elderly Oral Care

Close up portrait of happy with beaming smile female pensioner pointing on her perfect clear white teeth

Oral hygiene is critical yet challenging for many elderly patients. Mouth swabs are often used as an alternative to toothbrushing to clean the mouths of hospitalized or nursing home patients. This article examines the use of swabs for oral care in the elderly, including their effectiveness, impact on pneumonia risk, limitations, and role as part of a broader hygiene regimen.

What are mouth swabs and how are they used for oral care?

Mouth swabs refer to foam swabs, cotton swabs, or toothettes that can be used to clean the mouth. They are commonly used in hospitals and nursing facilities to provide oral care for elderly and critically ill patients who have difficulty brushing. Swabs are gentler than toothbrushes and allow staff to clean the mouth without the gagging and discomfort that can occur with a toothbrush. Swabs are moistened with water, saline, or mouthwash and then used to wipe the inner cheeks, gums, tongue, palate, and tooth surfaces. For patients with secretions, suction can be applied while swabbing the mouth.

How effective are swabs compared to toothbrushing?

Studies comparing foam swabs to manual and powered toothbrushes find that swabs do not remove dental plaque as effectively. Toothbrushes provide superior mechanical disruption of biofilm. However, some research shows that coarse foam swabs with ridges can still reduce plaque and gingivitis, though less significantly than brushes. For patients unable to tolerate a toothbrush, swabs are better than no oral care at all. Swabbing is also preferred for intubated patients to avoid disturbing tubes. Overall, swabs seem to provide some oral cleansing but do not replace the need for regular toothbrushing.

Do swabs help prevent pneumonia in the elderly?

While not as effective as brushing for plaque removal, mouth swabbing has been shown to decrease oral bacteria and respiratory infections. One study found use of chlorhexidine oral swabs significantly lowered rates of nosocomial pneumonia in ICU patients on mechanical ventilation. Frequent swabbing and suctioning can help clear pools of saliva and prevent aspiration. For compromised elderly patients, mouth swabs provide a simple way to maintain basic oral hygiene. When combined with other interventions like positional changes and antibiotic therapy, swabs may contribute to an oral care regimen that reduces pneumonia risk.

What are the limitations and concerns with mouth swabs?

A major drawback is that swabs do not clean dental and orthodontic appliances. Bacteria accumulate rapidly on surfaces of dentures, bridges, and braces, increasing infection risk. Another issue is that certain swabs containing lemon-glycerin can dry and irritate the oral mucosa with repeated use. There are also concerns that small foam particles could detach and be inhaled or swallowed. This led to a safety warning about some oral foam swabs. Proper training and protocols are needed to ensure mouth swabbing is performed safely and effectively.

In conclusion, foam and sponge swabs can be a useful part of maintaining oral hygiene for elderly patients who cannot brush regularly. While swabs are inferior to toothbrushes for plaque removal, they still improve oral cleanliness. Along with other preventive care, mouth swabbing helps reduce risk of aspiration pneumonia in compromised patients. Further research is still needed to establish best practices for mouth swab use and oral care in the elderly.

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  1. 1. Deutsch A, Jay E. Optimising oral health in frail older people. Aust Prescr. 2021 Oct;44(5):153-160. doi: 10.18773/austprescr.2021.037. Epub 2021 Oct 1. PMID: 34728880; PMCID: PMC8542479.
  2. 2. Marino PJ, Hannigan A, Haywood S, Cole JM, Palmer N, Emanuel C, Kinsella T, Lewis MA, Wise MP, Williams DW. Comparison of foam swabs and toothbrushes as oral hygiene interventions in mechanically ventilated patients: a randomised split mouth study. BMJ Open Respir Res. 2016 Oct 14;3(1):e000150. doi: 10.1136/bmjresp-2016-000150. PMID: 27843549; PMCID: PMC5073587.
  3. 3. Oral Care and the Elderly. John R. Ashford and Michelle Skelley.

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