Getting Culture

I’m breaking my rule. This is about me. Or, rather, a very specific part of me.

The human mouth is a teeming cesspool of shit.

Bacteria, fungi, protozoa, viruses: It’s a real party in there. A constantly moist 95° F. A rainforest of microorganisms, if you like. And what we eat, they eat.

The more than 100 species of bacteria, and hundreds of species of fungi, protozoa, and viruses that have taken up residence in our mouths is difficult to fathom. Microbiologists estimate that, in addition to these known species, there are up to 500 other living, breathing organisms inhabiting our mouths, although only 50 have been identified and named. The sheer number of these creatures is astronomical, considering the fact that our mouths contain more bacteria than the entire world’s population, and the fact that our bodies house approximately one trillion bacteria.

And this is the beginning of my problem. April was not a good month. For two full weeks, I had a heinous bacterial infection in my mouth.

It started with a chancre sore. Not a huge deal. I’ve had them all my life. I even survived the heart-stopping shock of learning in 8th grade sex ed that chancre sores, like cold sores, are a form of herpes. Now I just deal with them.

But this one, for the first time, was on the tip of my tongue. Creepy. Ugly. Then, a couple days later, I started to get more. Two on my cheek where I bit myself on accident. One in the back of the mouth where my gums meet my cheek. One in the same place on the other side of the mouth. One on the soft palate. One that arrived on the inside of my cheek, as if left by the sadistic evil twin of the Tooth Fairy, overnight. Then — because, as we optimists believe, “it can always be worse” — a second, third, fourth and fifth on my tongue.

I was raging.

Eating, drinking, talking, sleeping — all were miniature excursions into hell. Constant, sharp pain in my mouth all day long put me in a foul mood and gave me a headache. Plus it made me salivate like a dog — some natural, annoying response from the body, I’m sure, like a fever or vomiting — which made me need to move my mouth, which inflicted more pain.

Then the worst of it struck. Some kind of gum infection on the roof of my mouth. Imagine taking a hook, digging it into the flesh around your upper teeth, and stretching it back toward the throat. It would open a pretty angry-looking, sensitive sore. Then fill that sore with dead, gray, decaying tissue. Then add an unpleasant odor. Now multiply it by two, one for each side of the mouth.

I lost almost 10 pounds eating nothing but oatmeal, boxed mashed potatoes, and macaroni with butter. (I couldn’t eat, but I looked fabulous!) I found myself eyeing baby food at the drug store while I was waiting for my prescriptions. Eventually the oatmeal had to go, because it was hard to dig it out of the sores with my tongue. Mashed potatoes I could roll into a ball and carefully pass back to my throat on my tongue. The macaroni was the best, because it just kind of slid down. No tongue. No chewing. Bliss.

I saw three doctors in a week and a half. The third one brought a bunch of his colleagues into the exam room so they could each peer into my mouth with their pen lights. I felt like a circus side show freak. “What can it be?” Whatever it was kept me out of work for a full week.

I assumed it was something bacterial. I thought it might be trench mouth, which I had seen before on someone else. The doctor laughed at me. “Trench mouth? What’s that?”

He only knew it by the more scientific-sounding stomatitis or acute necrotizing ulcerative gingivitis. Pretty, huh? Only the older doctors in the office knew what trench mouth is.

Trench mouth — a severe gum infection — earned its name because of its prevalence among soldiers on the front lines during World War I. Although it’s less common today, trench mouth still affects thousands of young adults between the ages of 15 and 35. The disease is also known by other names, including Vincent’s stomatitis and acute necrotizing ulcerative gingivitis.

Trench mouth begins as a bacterial infection that causes inflamed, bleeding gums, but eventually, large ulcers may form on your gums and between your teeth. These are often extremely painful and can cause bad breath and a foul taste in your mouth.

Although the exact cause isn’t well understood, trench mouth seems to develop when factors such as poor oral hygiene, tobacco use and stress disrupt the balance between “good” and “bad” bacteria in your mouth.

They treated me for something viral with a big fat injection in the butt — one of a possible three, I was promised. Rock and roll. They also gave me antibiotics because, after four doctor’s office visits, no one was able to diagnose the problem. Every test came back negative. Every culture came back normal.

I don’t smoke. I had good oral hygiene. The cultures the doctor extracted and grew showed that there was nothing in my mouth that didn’t belong there. There was just too much of something and not enough of another, I guess. Makes sense, but what the heck could have been so stressful to so upset the balance of good and bad bugs in my mouth?

The antibiotics took effect. No more shots, thank God. The infection cleared in a day or so. Then I just had two craters of raw tissue on the roof of my mouth to heal, hyper-sensitive teeth, and no prospects of using toothpaste in the near future.

My biggest problem, actually, is that I can’t play rugby, because I can’t wear my mouth guard.

At least I’m back to solid food again.


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