When people think about poor oral hygiene, problems like decaying teeth, bad gums, and offensive breath typically come to mind. But, experts say an unhealthy, bacteria-filled mouth can also lead to a host of problems throughout the body, such as heart disease, diabetes, blood infection, and even low birth-weight babies. The culprit, more often than not, is gum disease.
“When you’re looking at people who have gum disease, they are suffering from a chronic low-grade infection,” said Jean Connor, a dental hygienist in Cambridge, Mass., and president-elect of the American Dental Hygienists’ Association. “Your whole body is a little bit compromised.”
A growing body of research is finding that gum disease, sometimes called periodontal disease, can exacerbate a wide array of health problems. It’s not something that just affects a small segment of the population. Four of every five Americans suffer from some form of gum disease, according to the National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research, part of the National Institutes of Health.
Gum disease is suspected of contributing to ailments through the bloodstream. Bacteria from the mouth flood into the circulatory system and travel to other parts of the body, causing widespread inflammation. Another possibility is that oral infections trigger the immune system, producing inflammation elsewhere.
“If you had an infection in your finger and you left it, it eventually would affect the rest of the body,” Connor said. “It’s the same with your mouth.”
Recent studies have shown an increased risk of heart disease and stroke in people with gum infections, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The risk appears to increase with the severity of the infection.
“Gum disease produces a tremendous amount of bacteria,” Connor said. “If you have a valve problem with your heart, the bacteria can invade and infect the heart.”
Blood infection from gum disease can even cause joint replacements to fail by aiding the body’s efforts to reject the artificial implant, said Diann Bomkamp, a dental hygienist in St. Louis and vice president of the American Dental Hygienists’ Association.
Other researchers have found that women with moderate-to-serious gum disease are twice as likely to give birth to premature babies. Problems ranging from low birth-weight to birth defects can result.
“If you are pregnant and you have gum disease, there may be problems in your pregnancy and with birth,” said Bomkamp. “Please see your dentist and get screened as soon as possible.”
Source: Health Day Reporter by Dr. Anthony Prezioso ◊ Mar 21, 2014
Dr. Anthony Prezioso is a graduate of Tufts University School of Dental Medicine.