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Can dental problems cause health problems?
What could happen if your mouth is not healthy? It’s not just about the teeth and gums. Poor dental health can affect your general health. Some systemic diseases can show signs in the oral cavity. Similarly, infections born in the oral cavity may spread to the other parts of the body and contribute to other health issues.
Our mouths are home to millions of tiny bacteria housed in the crevices between the teeth, gums and other oral structures. Most of these bacteria are harmless and form an integral part of the healthy oral biome. Some help in the digestion of food, whereas others play a significant role in preventing cavities. However, in the presence of too much dietary sugar, insufficient oral hygiene practices, and factors that affect the saliva composition in the mouth (e.g. smoking, certain medications etc.), this delicate balance of healthy oral microflora is affected. There is an overgrowth of the “bad” bacteria.
“Bad” bacteria accumulate on the teeth surfaces and the gum pockets and become closely associated with the blood vessels in the gums. They sneak into blood vessels by changing the permeability of the cells lining the blood vessels. From the bloodstream, they can travel to other parts of the body, causing health issues.
Bacterial infection can spread to the heart, the lungs, the kidney and even the reproductive organs. It’s interesting to note that in some rare instances, complications in the brain or during pregnancy can also arise if bacteria crosses the blood-brain barrier and the placental barrier. Some health problems made worse by oral bacteria may include heart disease,, diabetes, arthritis, respiratory disease, and cancer.
Bacteria from the bloodstream can travel to the various parts of the body, including the heart. Here, the bacteria can contribute to the clogging up of blood vessels, leading to a condition called atherosclerosis.
The blood vessels harden, which causes problems in the blood flow. Thus, a person may become more susceptible to heart diseases like stroke, hypertension, heart attack, etc. Rarely, when the same bacteria infects blood vessels in the heart, it may lead to a life-threatening condition called endocarditis.
A recent study examined the correlation between oral health and heart disease in a million people and found that smoking increased the likelihood of developing heart disease in poor oral health individuals. Further research is being conducted to substantiate these claims.
The relationship between gum disease and diabetes, and vice versa, is now well established. Not only does the presence of gum disease pose a risk for diabetic individuals, having diabetes itself increases an individual’s risk of developing gum disease.
In a diabetic person, there is reduced tolerance of the body to invading bacteria and infections. Elevated blood sugar levels in the saliva can act as a food source for the bacteria in the mouth and encourage their growth. Therefore, there may be a greater chance of infection in a diabetic person. The higher the sugar levels, the more favourable is the oral environment for bacteria to thrive in.
In terms of the inflammatory response seen in the body, there is a clear association between arthritis and gum disease. We see similar types of inflammatory compounds in the blood of individuals with severe gum disease and rheumatoid arthritis. Researchers at Johns Hopkins University found that gum disease-causing bacteria may trigger the autoimmune response (self-destructive behaviour) of immune cells seen in Rheumatoid arthritis.
Other possible health problems may include
Upper respiratory tract infections like pneumonia, bronchitis and even COPD may occur if bacteria from diseased gums reach the lungs through the bloodstream or airway. Although there isn’t sufficient research to explain the mechanism, a study published in the Journal of Periodontology found that patients with respiratory disease had poorer oral health and more significant gum inflammation than those with no respiratory disease.
Fluctuations in the hormone levels of a pregnant woman lead to an increased risk of developing oral infections. In unusual circumstances, when the mother has high inflammation levels in her body, the bacteria could cross over the placental membrane potentially causing birth complications. Severe gum disease in pregnant women may also elevate labour-inducing chemicals in the body, leading to preterm birth and low birth weight babies.
Researchers found that pregnant women with gum disease may be twice as likely to develop pre-eclampsia (elevated blood pressure, urinary protein and signs of some other organ damage- usually the kidney or liver). Scientists feel more research needs to be done to understand the mechanism behind this link with gum disease.
How to prevent complications from poor oral health?
The only way you can protect yourself from serious health problems brought on by poor oral health is to ensure that you practice good oral hygiene and visit the dentist and/or hygienist for regular preventive care (once every six months).
Some ways you can maintain good oral health are:
- Brush twice a day using correct brushing techniques
- Floss between your teeth regularly
- Use fluoride-containing toothpaste
- Avoid sugary drinks and foods
- Eat a well-balanced diet
- Limit Alcoholic drinks
- Avoid smoking or chewing tobacco products
- Monitor your oral medication and notice any side effects
- Schedule regular dental checkups and hygienist preventive treatment
Follow these tips, and you will enjoy healthy, strong teeth for the rest of your life.