Your oral health and overall health share a strong connection.
When we think of our oral health, it’s easy to think of it independently of our physical health. After all, when we have an aching back, we see a doctor, but when we have a toothache, we see a dentist. Dentists don’t examine our bodies and doctors don’t examine our teeth or gums.
This division in healthcare can make caring for our bodies and caring for our smiles seem very different from one another, but in reality, they share a very definite connection.
Your oral health reflects what’s going on in your body.
Dentists are often able to pick up on a patient’s existing health conditions through nothing more than a visual examination. For example, unusual enamel damage on the back of a patient’s teeth could point to chronic acid reflux, or widespread tooth decay could point to an unhealthy diet high in sugars or starches.
Even more interesting is your dentist’s ability to predict underlying physical health conditions and diseases based on oral health symptoms, specifically when bacteria, infection, or inflammation are involved.
Oral diseases can contribute to bacterial and inflammatory health conditions.
The mouth is a very vascular area of the body with a high amount of bacteria.
The bacteria present in a healthy mouth is harmless, similar to how healthy gut bacteria is important for your digestive system.
However, when oral bacteria get out of control and spikes of bad bacteria occur, the high number of blood vessels in your mouth become pathways for oral bacteria to travel to other areas of the body.
In addition to oral bacteria negatively impacting your overall health, oral inflammation can have the same effect.
Inflammation is your body’s natural healing response to injury or infection. The inflammatory response releases chemicals from your white blood cells to heal the damage it senses. Unfortunately, when the problem isn’t getting any better, it can lead to chronic inflammation. Chronic inflammation begins to have the opposite effect as the aforementioned chemicals and proteins begin to poison the body instead.
Chronic inflammation can be localized, but when the inflammation is stemming from the mouth it spreads just like bacteria.
Essentially, a badly inflamed ankle isn’t likely to cause inflammation in your mouth, but chronic inflammation stemming from gum disease can either cause or worsen existing inflammatory diseases within the body.
You can keep your body healthy by keeping your mouth healthy.
With these principles in mind, let’s go over 6 different diseases or health conditions that have a direct correlation to your oral health.
Periodontitis is the most advanced form of periodontal (gum) disease. Periodontitis can be highly destructive without treatment, eventually leading to the permanent loss of teeth, gum tissue, and even bone.
Periodontitis is an inflammatory disease. It develops when plaque build-up on the teeth irritates the gums. This causes inflammation and the subsequent swelling begins to trap bacteria within the gum pockets surrounding the affected teeth.
Your body will try to heal this problem, but without treatment, it eventually leads to a state of chronic inflammation. It’s here that damage occurs to your smile and also where periodontitis begins to affect the rest of your body.
Periodontitis causes widespread inflammation and bacterial infections, and as you’ll see later on in this list, contributes to some very serious (and common) diseases. Periodontitis can also be a symptom of other diseases; for example, patients with HIV/AIDS can develop periodontitis because of the HIV virus.
2. Cardiovascular Health
When discussing the effect of periodontitis on the body, heart health can’t be skipped.
Cardiovascular diseases and conditions like heart disease, stroke, heart attacks, and clogged arteries are linked to both chronic inflammation in the mouth and oral bacteria. In the case of endocarditis specifically, it’s believed that it can occur due to rampant oral bacteria reaching areas of the heart through the bloodstream.
It isn’t explicitly clear whether periodontitis or oral bacteria directly cause cardiovascular problems or vice versa, but there is certainly enough research that doctors and dentists alike are well aware of the relationship.
Poor oral health won’t cause diabetes by itself, but diabetes can cause gum disease.
Diabetes hurts your body’s immune system, making it difficult to fight off bacterial infections. Gum disease can flourish under these conditions, quickly leading to severe periodontitis. Most diabetic patients have gum disease or periodontitis, and typically show very advanced stages compared to patients without diabetes.
To make matters even more difficult, once a diabetic or a pre-diabetic patient has periodontitis, their blood sugar levels are harder to control. This means treatment for both problems often needs to occur simultaneously in order to see success.
Pneumonia and similar respiratory diseases can be caused by bad bacteria in the mouth being inhaled into the lungs. This is known as aspiration pneumonia and is typically most common in older people, though you can develop it at any age.
Once aspiration pneumonia is present, it can lead to a difficult recovery. Similarly to diabetes, it’s crucial for oral hygiene to be addressed while treating pneumonia as patients can relapse very easily.
5. Pregnancy Complications
It isn’t unusual for pregnant women to experience poorer oral health during their pregnancy due to the high levels of hormones.
In addition to tooth decay, periodontal (gum) disease is very common for pregnant women. With treatment, mild to moderate gum disease is easily controlled, but without treatment, periodontitis can set in relatively quickly. This is especially true if the expecting mother had gingivitis prior to her pregnancy.
Pregnancy can not only affect oral health, but poor oral health can lead to pregnancy complications. If periodontitis does occur and leads to oral bacterial infections, it can affect the developing baby.
Conditions in newborns that have been linked to periodontal disease in expectant mothers include:
- Low birth weight.
- Premature birth.
- Hearing and sight issues.
- Cerebral palsy.
6. Oral Cancer
Oral cancer is a particularly difficult form of cancer to treat as diagnosis usually occurs after the cancer has been present for quite a while. When caught early, through oral cancer screenings with your dentist, treatment and recovery can be quite successful.
Oral cancer is typically attributed to tobacco use, alcoholism, and HPV (human papillomavirus). A weak immune system can also increase your risk of developing oral cancer. This means underlying health conditions elsewhere in your body, as well as chronic periodontitis, can contribute to oral cancer development.
Learn about your own mouth-body connection during your next appointment with Dr. Sexton.
Now that you’re familiar with the mouth-body connection, you might be wondering what story your own mouth is telling you about your overall health. During your next appointment, you can explore this subject with Dr. Sexton and discover what aspects of your smile might be clueing him into your general health.
If you haven’t yet scheduled an appointment with Dr. Sexton, you can do so now by calling our office or filling out this easy online form.