It’s funny how we think about health. We tend to mentally segregate oral health from overall health, with doctors and dentists operating independently of each other. While that may at times be convenient, it’s not how the human body works. Oral health is a critical part of overall health, as oral health interacts with and affects the rest of the body, often in surprising ways. In order to promote both overall wellness and oral health, it’s useful to understand the impact that oral health has on the rest of the body.
The Impact of Oral Health
There are a couple of important areas to cover. To start, oral health has a proven impact on the heart and the cardiovascular system. There are two facets to this that must be discussed separately. There is a strong link between oral health and heart disease. In particular, gum disease like gingivitis which has reached a moderate or advanced stage can cause heart disease. This happens when bacteria from the mouth and gums move through the system and eventually reaches the heart. There, they take up residence in damaged or stressed areas of the cardiac muscle and cause inflammation which leads to further problems such as endocarditis. It doesn’t end here, either—oral bacteria may also cause other issues like atherosclerosis or stroke. Given most American adults deal with some version of gum disease, this is a sobering reminder of how quickly things can turn serious.
The second series of potentially serious issues occurs at the intersection of oral health and pregnancy. The many changes that occur in the body during pregnancy may cause some oral health problems. For example, the hormonal changes during pregnancy may cause swollen and bleeding gums. While in and of itself this isn’t serious, it may provide the opportunity for gingivitis or other gum diseases to take hold. Your dentist may recommend more frequent teeth cleaning during pregnancy to mitigate this. Morning sickness may introduce excess acids into the mouth, which can wear away enamel and may require treatment to help neutralize the acid. Pregnancy may also lead to pregnancy tumors: small growths between the teeth. They may sound frightening, but they’re generally benign.
Before and during pregnancy there is one serious issue to keep in mind regarding oral health. Gum disease has a strong link to many pregnancy complications and adverse outcomes, including preterm birth, low birth weight and preeclampsia. If you are pregnant or are planning on getting pregnant, please discuss this issue with your dentist.
There are a handful of other potentially serious issues that link oral health and overall health. Respiratory ailments are often less severe in patients who take care of their oral health. Patients who received poor dental care during their teens and young adulthood have increased rates of hypertension or high blood pressure. Diabetes can increase the risk of gum disease, and some diabetics report gum disease, in turn, exacerbates their diabetic symptoms.
So what can you as a patient do to help both your oral health and your overall health? Fundamentally the best thing you can do is maintain your oral health via a regular routine of brushing and flossing, a healthy diet, and regular exams at your dentist’s office. A trip to the dentist is the chance for an oral health professional to conduct a thorough examination of your mouth and gums and help address problems before they get too serious. If you have an oral health question you’d like to know more about—or if you just need a checkup—get in touch today and make an appointment.