How Oral Health Affects Your Overall Health

A patient smiling in a dental chair with the doctor

Taking diligent care of your teeth and gums daily may seem like a tedious task. After all, it involves brushing and flossing your teeth, at least twice a day, and rinsing with an antiseptic mouthwash. On top of that, you should see your dentist for routine dental exams and cleanings every six months, as recommended by the American Dental Association (ADA).

These oral health routines have many benefits besides clean, fresh breath and a brighter smile. Better overall health is one big advantage that is often overlooked. You might find it surprising, but there is a link between poor oral hygiene and systemic (whole-body) health.

Inside this article are details on the mouth body connection and tips for reducing the risk of diseases caused by poor oral hygiene.

Why Is Good Oral Hygiene Important?

Practicing good oral care from childhood through adulthood helps protect your teeth, gum, and overall health. Following daily oral cleansing habits and getting regular dental checkups reduces your risk of gum infection and gum disease (periodontal disease).

Poor oral habits cause plaque and tartar to build up on the tooth surface and along the gumline. Plaque is a creamy, sticky film that develops when bacteria mix with food particles, sugar, and saliva in the mouth.

If not removed, plaque hardens into tartar (calculus) within 24-72 hours. Tartar can only be safely removed through professional dental cleanings. Otherwise, bacteria in tartar will produce acids that gradually destroy the tooth enamel. This may lead to oral diseases or other conditions such as:

  • Tooth decay
  • Gingivitis 
  • Dental abscess
  • Gum disease
  • Gum tissue and bone damage
  • Tooth loss
  • Oral bite problems

How is the Mouth and Body Connected?

The oral cavity is a breeding ground for all kinds of harmful bacteria. The mouth is also the doorway to your body. Medical and dental professionals can detect signs of nutritional deficiencies or general infection through an oral exam. For example, mouth lesions can signal oral cancer. Similarly, chronic gum inflammation (gingivitis) may indicate the presence of diseases that affect the whole body (systemic disease).

At the same time, caring for your dental health can prevent gingivitis, gum disease, cavities, and the development of chronic medical conditions. Regular dental exams also help with the early detection and treatment of oral cancer, a life-threatening disease.

Oral cancer is primarily caused by excessive tobacco and alcohol use and poor nutrition. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported that oral conditions and chronic health conditions are "...actually inter-related" although they are seen as separate. In fact, researchers in a study done on 5900 participants, aged 15-75, found that periodontal disease was a risk factor for cardiovascular disease (CVD).

More on the Link Between Gum Disease and Your Health

Gum disease, also called periodontitis and periodontal disease, is a chronic inflammatory disease. According to the CDC, it affects 47.2% of adults aged 30 years and older. Aging increases the risk of chronic diseases as well as periodontal disease. The CDC also reported that 70.1% of adults 65 years and older have periodontitis.

The percentages are high despite the disease can be prevented with good oral hygiene throughout life. Another significant observation is that many people are not aware of the mouth body connection and the health consequences of the oral disease.

Gum Disease Symptoms

  • Red or swollen gums
  • Persistent bad breath
  • Gums that bleed when you brush
  • Sensitive or loose tooth
  • Tooth loss
  • Spaces between the teeth and gum tissue at the gumline
  • Difficulty or pain when chewing
  • Receding gums

Periodontal disease starts as gingivitis and goes through different stages. While it can affect your overall health at any given time, the risk appears to increase in the advanced stages. Routine six-month dental visits can protect your dental health and prevent long-term health complications.

Medical Conditions Linked to Periodontal Disease

In an article, Oral-Systemic Health, the ADA noted that bacteria in the mouth can contribute to disease in other parts of your body. According to health experts, bacteria from periodontal disease can travel through the bloodstream into the body and affect the immune system.

More significantly, researchers found that the following diseases were linked to inflammation markers associated with infectious oral bacteria:

  • Diabetes
  • Heart disease
  • Stroke
  • Pneumonia

Gum disease during pregnancy may also contribute to preterm labor, low–birth weight in babies, and tooth loss among moms. Hormonal changes caused by pregnancy can make your gums more prone to plaque and gingivitis (gum inflammation and bleeding). Other risk factors for the disease include smoking and diabetes.

Likewise, diseases such as diabetes, HIV infection, and AIDS can hinder the immune system's ability to fight off infection, thereby making gum disease worse.

Tips for Protecting Oral and Overall Health

Health experts believe oral health is so important that it should be considered an essential part of general health and well-being. As such, preventing oral diseases using the following tips can help protect you from diseases caused by poor oral hygiene.

  • Practice brushing, flossing and rinsing at least twice a day
  • Talk to your dentist if you suspect you have periodontal disease
  • Get early treatment for infections such as gingivitis
  • Screen for oral cancer
  • Make lifestyle adjustments, such as eating healthier and quitting smoking

Periodontal Disease Treatment

Seeking treatment for the disease in the early stages can prevent it from progressing or resulting in systemic diseases caused by poor oral hygiene. There is no cure for gum disease once it reaches the advanced stage. At this point, non-surgical or surgical treatment may be recommended to keep it under control.

Non-surgical treatments include:

  • Antibiotics (to reduce inflammation)
  • Routine cleanings
  • Root scaling and planing (deep cleaning)

Surgical treatments include:

  • Flap surgery (pocket reduction surgery)
  • Soft tissue grafts
  • Bone grafts
  • Guided tissue regeneration

Healthier Mouth Healthier You

Everyone forgets to brush in-between meals or goes to bed without brushing from time to time. Others skip their 6-month dental checkup for various reasons. That's being human. Sometimes life responsibilities and challenges get in the way. But now that you're aware of the mouth body connection, you can intentionally take steps to improve your dental care routines and overall health.

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