Most of us think about our teeth and gums as separate from our general health, but doctors don’t.
“Why do we think health starts at the tonsils?” asks Dr. Jason Strever, periodontist at North River Periodontics and Implants in Chattanooga. “The fact is that your oral health affects your systemic health and vice versa.”
There are two types of diseases that affect your mouth:
The dreaded cavity results when sugars in food and beverages come into contact with the ever-forming plaque on your teeth. Acids form and start eating away at the enamel. Conditions such as acid reflux, severe morning sickness, bulimia, or even cancer treatment may lead to decay due to stomach acid eroding tooth enamel.
This disease affects the gums and results in bone loss around the teeth. It can be traced to plaque that leads to inflamed gums. In the worst cases, patients can lose their teeth.
When a person has periodontal disease, the effects can be felt throughout the body.
“It all comes down to inflammation and bacteria,” says Dr. Strever. “The bacteria that live in your mouth and cause periodontal disease can get into gum tissue, into connective tissue, into the bloodstream and then get carried to other parts of the body. For example, bacteria from the mouth have been found in infections of the heart and brain.”
Understanding the links
Recent research shows a connection between a number of health conditions and periodontal disease:
People with diabetes are more prone to develop gingivitis (gum disease), which can affect blood glucose levels, making them harder to regulate.
Pregnancy includes hormonal changes that can affect oral health in a few ways.
- Pregnancy gingivitis — swollen, tender or bleeding gums — is fairly common and can lead to serious problems if left untreated.
- Studies have also shown a correlation between periodontal disease and premature birth.
Poor oral health may be connected to a greater risk of developing pneumonia. The theory is that bacteria in the mouth may get into the lungs and cause the disease.
Many studies indicate a correlation between gum disease and atherosclerosis, the build-up of plaque in the arteries that can lead to heart disease or stroke. According to the American Heart Association, while a definitive link between the two conditions is not certain, they do share certain risk factors such as smoking and diabetes. So a diagnosis of periodontal disease may indicate that a patient is at risk for heart disease also.
Get rid of the plaque
The good news? Taking care of your dental health is relatively easy.
Your goal is simple: Prevent plaque from building up around your teeth.
Here’s how to do it:
- Brush your teeth for at least one minute, twice a day.
- Floss at least once a day.
- Don’t smoke. (Smoking is the No. 1 risk factor for gum disease.)
- Get regular dental checkups.
- See your dentist if you experience bleeding or swelling of your gums, loose teeth, or pain in your teeth.