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The Hidden Dangers of Poor Dental Hygiene for Seafarers


Often overlooked, dental cases are on the rise for seafarers. In 2023 dental cases moved from MedSea’s sixth most common case category to the second. 

This is perhaps not surprising, given that 50% of the world’s population suffer from oral diseases, costing $387 billion per year in direct costs (dental visits) to the World economy1. In addition, new research is beginning to show that poor dental hygiene can have an impact on the rest of your body and other types of diseases.

Clearly the data shows that there is a definite risk of both operational disruption and discomfort for the seafarer but what can management do to mitigate these risks?

What are the Most Common Dental Issues?

MedSea receive daily calls about a variety of dental case types, including: 

  • Carries: Bacterial damage to the tooth, which may require a filling (if it becomes a cavity)
  • Displaced fillings: Caused by biting hard food or further tooth decay
  • Toothache: Inflammation or infection of the soft tissue inside the tooth that contains nerves and blood vessels
  • Periodontal disease: Inflammation and infection of the gums and the supporting structures of the teeth, which can lead to tooth loss and other complications
  • Fragmented teeth: From sudden blows/accidents, grinding or clenching teeth

Management of Dental Cases Onboard

Dental cases are not always easy to manage onboard and over 50% of MedSea’s dental cases require further shoreside evaluation (higher than average, compared to other case types). To add to this, knowledge onboard about how to handle dental issues is limited, as it is often not covered as part of first aid training courses. 

When crew members cannot be immediately attended by a dentist onshore, the pain and discomfort may affect their performance, concentration, sleep, and safety.

Given the clear risks, the focus has to be towards mitigation and prevention of these issues and it is extremely important, not only for seafarers to take good care of their teeth prior to joining the vessel, but to continue practising good oral hygiene throughout their time at sea.

Recommendations for Management

  • Taking dental X-rays during the Pre-Employment Medical Examination can detect any underlying tooth defects not visible on inspection.
  • Ensure your vessel is stocked with analgesia and antibiotics according to flag state regulations.
  • Consider carrying temporary dental repair kits onboard: Such kits can help replace fillings or fill cavities, to alleviate the pain and prevent infection, until a shoreside dental visit can be arranged.
  • Promote good dental hygiene onboard: Teeth should be brushed properly for approximately two minutes, at least twice a day, using a soft-bristled or powered toothbrush and a fluoride toothpaste. Flossing and use of dental mouthwash should also be encouraged.
  • Ensure access to high quality food and drink: Avoid or limit the consumption of sugary, acidic, or caffeinated drinks and encourage crewmembers consume at least five portions of fruit and vegetables per day. 
  • Ensure that your crew members seek medical advice and treatment as soon as possible to reduce the potential for any unplanned disembarkations.
  • Encourage crew to stop smoking: Provide education about the danger and unwanted health effects of smoking.
  • Encourage crewmembers to change their toothbrush every three to four months, or when the bristles begin to fray, to optimise effective cleaning.

Shipowners, operators and management should be ensuring the promotion of health initiatives onboard, not only to fulfil their Duty of Care to seafarers but to also reduce the risk of any operational disruption.

  1. WHO Global Oral Health Report

To find out more about how MedSea, an International SOS Company can help support the health of your seafarers, visit: