The mouth has a tremendous amount of bacteria. Occasionally bacteria can cause diseases such as tooth cavities or periodontal disease. When diseases get out of control, bacteria can enter the lungs or the blood and release inflammatory chemicals, which can have very serious effects. Oral bacteria has been linked to diabetes, low infant birth weight and premature births, arthritis, atherosclerosis and cardiovascular disease, hypertension, chronic infections and other inflammatory diseases.

Cardiovascular disease (CVD) is the number one cause of death in the United States. While there are many causes to this disease, we now know there is a relationship between periodontal disease and CVD. Bacteria or the toxins they release, travel through the blood stream to other parts of the body where they damage the lining of blood vessels. This contributes to arthrosclerosis and CVD. In addition, bacteria from the mouth have been found growing inside the atherosclerotic plaques in blood vessels.

There is much data linking dental health and overall health, and we are learning more everyday. A recent study of nursing home patients with pneumonia found that oral hygiene was more important than any other factor, including antibiotics, in preventing recurrence because bacteria in the mouth can be aspirated into the lungs. Another study found that 37 of the most common respiratory pathogens were found growing in dental plaque. It is important to maintain good oral hygiene so that these pathogenic bacteria do not get too numerous and cause problems.

Rheumatoid arthritis is an autoimmune disease that causes chronic inflammation in the tissue surrounding the joints. There is a higher incidence of periodontal disease in people with rheumatoid arthritis. They also have a high level of circulating antibodies against the main bacteria in periodontal disease.1 Some of these antibodies may contribute to the cause of rheumatoid arthritis.

Another area of interest is the relationship between type II diabetes and periodontal disease. The bacteria that cause periodontal disease release chemicals into the blood stream that react with the liver and cause insulin resistance.2 Pregnant women with periodontal disease have a higher chance of developing gestational diabetes. In the same study they found that the more severe the periodontal disease symptoms, the harder it was to control diabetes.3

Like all areas of medicine, preventative dental care is the easiest and best way to maintain good health. This includes brushing your teeth and flossing along with regular visits to your dentist. Oral diseases are prevented by removing plaque and calculus and keeping your oral bacteria count low. When a person gets periodontal disease, it is important to see the dentist even more frequently in order to prevent it from getting worse.

Recent research has shown that effects of oral bacteria and periodontal disease are not limited to just the mouth but play a pivotal role in a person’s overall health. Maintaining good oral health is an important part of living a healthy lifestyle. Dr. Devarieux from the University of Minnesota School of Public Health so aptly said, “Periodontal disease is no longer just about teeth. It is about the whole body.” The boundaries that used to exist between medicine, dentistry and public health are beginning to crumble.

1) Medscape.com/viewarticle/557080; 12-21-07

2) Inside Dent: April 2007; Taylor, G. W.

3) JDentRes; 2008; 87; 328-333

Dr. Jay M. Feuer DDS, MAGD