It’s important to take care of your mouth, teeth, and gums; good oral health prevents bad breath, tooth decay, and gum disease. Taking care of your teeth today will help you keep them in the future. However, recent medical research suggests that bad oral health can lead to a variety of medical issues, including heart attacks, strokes, diabetes, and preterm labor.
What Your Mouth Reveals About Your Health
So how does the health of your mouth connect to the health of your overall body? Quite a lot actually, by looking in your mouth or taking a saliva sample, doctors can get a lot of information about your health.
Oral Signs and Symptoms
The mouth is often a helpful vantage point for detecting health issues. Conditions like AIDS or diabetes usually first appear as mouth lesions or other oral issues. According to the Academy of General Dentistry, 90% of systemic diseases cause oral symptoms.
Doctors collect and test saliva to detect a variety of substances. For instance, cortisol levels in your saliva can be used to test stress responses in newborn children. Fragments of bone-specific proteins can help doctors monitor bone loss in people who have osteoporosis. Saliva can also be used to detect cancer. Saliva testing helps to detect drugs, toxins, hormones, and antibodies that indicate hepatitis or HIV. Testing saliva may one day replace blood testing as the primary method of detecting diabetes, Parkinson’s disease, liver cirrhosis, and other diseases.
How Saliva Handles Bacteria and Viruses
Saliva is among your body’s primary defenses against bacteria and viruses. Saliva contains antibodies which counter pathogens like the common cold or HIV. It also contains histatins, proteins that inhibit the growth of Candida albicans fungus. HIV and other infections weaken these proteins, the candida spreads and can cause fungal infections known as oral thrush. Your saliva also contains enzymes that degrade bacterial membranes, inhibit bacterial growth, and disrupt bacterial enzymes.
As helpful as saliva is, its abilities are limited, and there are over 500 species of bacteria in your mouth at any given time. These bacteria are constantly forming dental plaque, a film that clings to your teeth and can cause serious health problems if left unattended.
The Mouth as an Infection Source
If you don’t brush or floss your teeth regularly, plaque will build up along your gumline. Which creates an opportunity for bacteria to grow in between your gums and teeth, this infection is known as gingivitis. If left unchecked, gingivitis will develop into a more serious infection known as periodontitis, which in turn can develop into acute necrotizing ulcerative gingivitis, also known as trench mouth.
The bacteria in your mouth doesn’t usually enter your bloodstream. But dental treatments, or even just flossing or brushing, can allow the bacteria entry into your body. There are also medications and treatments that can reduce saliva flow or alter the balance of bacteria in your mouth, letting the bacteria into your body. Which isn’t too concerning for people with healthy immune systems, but if the system is weakened the bacteria can cause infections like infective endocarditis, which affects the heart.
Conditions Caused by Plaque
A long-term gum infection will eventually cause tooth loss, but recent medical research suggests that oral infections are connected to diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and preterm birth.
Diabetes: Diabetes increases your risk of gum disease. However, chronic gum disease can make your diabetes harder to control by making your body resist insulin, disrupting your blood sugar control.
Cardiovascular Disease: Gingivitis can help cause clogged arteries and blood clots. This is because inflammation in the mouth causes inflammation throughout the body, including your arteries. Inflammation can lead to plaque in the arteries, increasing the risk of heart attack or stroke. Gum disease and tooth loss also lead to plaque development.
Preterm Birth: Gum disease can cause premature birth and low birth weight babies. It’s estimated that 18% of preterm and low weight births are connected to oral infection. The theory is that toxins released by oral infections reach the child’s bloodstream and affect the growth of the fetus. Infection can also cause the premature release of labor-triggering substances.