The link between oral health and overall health has been researched extensively for the past decade. No longer is it assumed that the body and the mouth are two separate parts, as was the general consensus in the past. In fact, former Secretary of Health and Human Services, Donna Shalala, said, “The terms oral health and general health should not be interpreted as separate entities.” Oral infections are related to systemic illness and diagnosing and treating oral infection can often heal conditions that are unrelated to the oral cavity. Just as skin protects the inside of the body from outside bacterial invasion, the gums and teeth have the important job of protecting the mouth—and ultimately the body– from foreign attack. Practicing good oral hygiene is important to keeping this line of defense healthy and working well.
People typically see their dentist twice a year, which is more often than they see their primary care doctors. This is beneficial, not only because your dentist and primary care doctor can work together to keep you healthy, but also because, by detecting symptoms in your mouth, your dentist can expose larger health problems in your body. And, as is often suggested, early detection can lead to early prevention.
The oral cavity is composed of millions of bacteria. Most of it is good and needs to be there to protect the mouth and body from other harmful bacteria. This is due, in part, to the fact that teeth are the only non-shedding surfaces in the body, and they house the millions of bacteria we need to fend off dangerous intruders. Usually, when we eat or drink, the bacteria from food is swallowed and destroyed by stomach acid during digestion. However, depending on what kinds of food we eat, and primarily when we eat simple carbohydrate foods and beverages, bacteria in the mouth thrive in the sugar contained in those foods and drinks and create acids that eat away at the enamel. In time, this can cause a cavity, and if left untreated, toxins from plaque in the mouth can cause gums to swell and bleed. This is called gingivitis and is an indication of periodontal disease. Periodontal disease can cause the gums and teeth to separate from one another. When this bond is broken, bacteria can enter the bloodstream. And, because the mouth is the easiest way for contaminants to enter the body, it is especially important to keep that barrier between the gums and teeth intact.
The mouth is often considered a window for many illnesses. Routine dental care can be lifesaving, because dentists are medically trained and experts in oral care. They can recognize when something looks suspicious and point you in the right direction.
Research has concluded that uncontrolled bacteria from the mouth, and specifically from periodontal disease, can contribute to illnesses such as cardiovascular disease, respiratory infection, diabetes, osteoporosis, HIV/AIDS, and low birth weight. It has also been confirmed that recovery from these illnesses is delayed by periodontal disease. Proper dental hygiene can prevent many of these conditions, because ensuring your gums are healthy helps in the prevention of some of them. And, if you have one of these diseases, good oral health care is essential to healing them. Oral cancer can also be detected by your dentist, so it is important to make regular dental visits a priority.
Oral health comprises not only healthy teeth, but also the gums, the hard and soft palates, the salivary glands, the mucosal lining of the mouth, throat and tongue, the lips, and the muscles of the jaw. The salivary glands provide important information through saliva samples, which can uncover illness in the mouth and body. You may have a systemic illness that might not have been caused by gum disease, but your dentist can spot nutritional deficiencies and systemic problems like infections, injuries, some cancers and immune disorders and refer you to your primary care doctor for further assessment.
Periodontal disease has a connection to and possible influence on the development of heart disease. If the dentist notices the symptoms of red, swollen gums, persistent bad breath, loose teeth or teeth that are pulling away from the gums, he can treat you. Healing periodontal disease is cruicial, because if it is under control, there is a reduced chance of developing periodontal diseaserelated heart disease. If you feel pain in your jaw, you will want to discuss this with your dentist so he can rule out a dental issue such as temporomandibular
joint pain (TMJ) or periodontal disease. If you do not have periodontal disease or another dentally-significant reason for jaw pain, your dentist can refer you to your primary care physician for a check-up and diagnosis, or direct you to your nearest emergency department in the event you are suffering from a heart attack.
If there is some kind of gum infection, clearing it up under your dentist’s care can often resolve larger health issues. Some clinical studies have shown that when an oral infection is treated, patients can often reduce the amount of blood pressure medicine they need.
The bacteria resulting from periodontal disease can also lead to heart attack and stroke by entering the bloodstream and promoting plaque formation in the blood vessels which can cause blockages in the arteries.
Another reason to make oral hygiene a priority is because there is a high chance of contracting respiratory infections such as bacterial pneumonia, chronic bronchitis and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), especially in the elderly population and those whose immune systems are compromised. If drops of periodontal bacteria are inhaled, they can breed in the lungs and cause infections and aggravate existing lung conditions. Those with COPD are at an increased risk for developing infections because they have reduced immune response.
Diabetes is a growing concern in the world today, and the fourth leading cause of death in the United States. Diabetics have compromised immune systems which cannot protect them as well as those without diabetes. This makes them more susceptible to periodontal disease, and once they have periodontal disease it is harder for them to control their blood sugar levels. Dentists can spot diabetes orally by noticing missing teeth and deep pockets where the gum and jaw bone have begun to separate. The smell of acetone on the breath and recurring gum abscesses are other clues in determining if the patient has diabetes. And, since periodontal disease is an early symptom of diabetes, dentists can be tuned in to the patient’s needs sooner. As always, the dentist will treat the periodontal disease portion and will refer the patient to his main doctor for further diagnosis.
Although osteoporosis is considered a “silent disease” and is not usually considered a life-threatening illness, it affects over 20 million people in America. Many of them are women over 50, but one out of 12 men has the disease as well. Osteoporosis can accelerate the progression of gum disease, and can negatively impact quality of life by causing pain, fractures and nutritional deficiencies since it is harder to chew some foods. Occasionally people die from the complications associated with fractures. The dentist performs regular dental x-ray examinations and can detect whether or not a patient is losing bone density in the jaw and around the teeth, which can be an indication of osteoporosis.
Some of the first symptoms of HIV/AIDS reveal themselves orally. Thrush (Candidiasis) is a yeast infection in the oral cavity that appears when there is low immune function in the body. And, although inflammation of the gums is related to other dental issues, it is also a sign of AIDS, as are bleeding gums, lesions, ulcers, enlarged tonsils, abnormal growths and severe periodontal disease.
The increased hormones flooding a pregnant woman’s body changes the inner landscape, and her mouth is no exception. Gum tissue may respond differently to nutrients and food than at any other time in her life. Additionally, the normal bacteria in plaque may cause increased inflammation and periodontal disease. If a woman does not practice regular oral hygiene she may develop
gum disease, which can be passed on to her unborn child. Studies suggest that there is a correlation between periodontal disease and premature birth and low birth weight babies.
At the end of a dental exam the dentist checks the mouth for oral cancer. This is important, because undetected oral cancer is extremely dangerous and spreads quickly through the lymphatic system. In the United States, oral cancer develops in approximately 30,000 people annually, and as many as 8,000 people die from it. Many of these people are over the age of 50, but it is never too early to be checked. Many people wait to be checked until symptoms arise, such as pain, numbness or tingling or abnormal spots or lesions, but by then it may be too late. Approximately 25% of oral cancers are fatal.
The dentist is looking for specific symptoms in the oral cavity while performing the exam, and will look at the roof and floor of the mouth, the cheeks, throat, tongue and lips for abnormalities such as red or white patches, swelling, lumps, lesions, bleeding or loose teeth. He or she will also feel the lymph nodes on the neck. If the patient complains of an earache or a sore throat, this may be a clue that something is not right, although those symptoms can be caused by other infections that are unrelated to oral cancer.
If the dentist finds something that looks suspicious, a biopsy will be performed to rule out cancer.
Over 90 percent of all systemic illnesses can manifest as symptoms in the mouth, so routine dental care can save your life.
Periodontal disease can wreak havoc on the entire body. Dangerous bacteria can move into the blood stream and travel to every organ and cause illness. Practicing good oral hygiene and routine dental check-ups helps you and the dentist work together to prevent gum disease and other illnesses. If illnesses that are not directly related to the mouth are present, the dentist can treat any oral symptoms related to the illness or refer you to your primary care doctor for further treatment.