For Good Physical Health, Be Sure to See Your…Dentist?
That’s right! There is mounting evidence of a connection between oral health and a person’s overall health.1 It’s well documented that a high percentage of health conditions have an oral component — such as swollen or bleeding gums, ulcers, dry mouth, bad breath, metallic taste and various other changes in the oral cavity.2 And for people who have regular oral examinations, their dentist may be the first health care provider to diagnose a health problem in its early stages.
That additional level of detection is certainly welcomed considering that a whopping 120+ medical conditions3 (many of them life-threatening) can be detected in the early stages by a dentist, including:
- Thyroid problems
- High blood pressure
- Sleep and breathing disorders
- Skin rashes
- Bruxism (teeth grinding)
- Drug abuse
- Digestive disorders
- Upper respiratory problems
Studies have shown people with moderate or advanced gum (periodontal) disease are more likely to have cardiovascular disease (CVD) — including heart disease and stroke — than those with healthy gums (no gum disease, gingivitis or early periodontitis).4
Keep in mind, although gum disease seems to be associated with heart disease, more studies are needed to determine if there is a direct cause/effect relationship in either direction. To date, research has not shown treatment for one of these diseases will help control the other.
According to the American Academy of Periodontology, people with diabetes are more likely to have gum disease and other oral health problems5. Researchers think this is because diabetes reduces the body’s resistance to infection and slows the healing process, which causes the gums to be among the tissues most impacted and creates a higher tendency for people with diabetes to lose more teeth.
The carcinogens in tobacco products, alcohol and certain foods — as well as excessive exposure to the sun — increase the risk of developing oral cancer. Risk factors for oral cancer may also be genetically inherited. During routine checkups, your dentist should screen for oral cancer and other cancers of the head and neck, including skin cancer, cancer of the jawbone and thyroid cancer. He or she can feel for lumps or irregular tissue changes in your neck, head, cheeks and oral cavity, and thoroughly examine the soft tissues in your mouth.
While you may be aware of how tobacco can harm your overall health, you might not have considered the effects on your oral health, including:
- Increased risk of cavities, gum disease, tooth loss and problems leading to root canals
- Reduced ability to fight infection, including in the mouth and gums
- Slower healing of gum tissue after oral surgery or from injury
- Reduced effectiveness of gum disease treatments
Some studies also indicate children exposed to tobacco smoke may have delays in the formation of their permanent teeth, although more research needs to be conducted6.
If you are a smoker or a parent with a child or teen who you suspect may be using tobacco, understand that tobacco dependence is a nicotine addiction disorder with physical, sensory, psychological and behavioral aspects that need to be addressed in order to break the habit. Your dentist, or physician, may be able to assist you in finding the tools to help you stop smoking — such as nicotine replacement therapies (e.g., nicotine patch or gum) and/or counseling and support programs in your area.
During pregnancy, hormonal changes could increase the risk of gingivitis, or inflammation of the gums. Symptoms include tenderness, swelling and bleeding of the gums. Without proper care, these problems may become more serious and can lead to gum (periodontal) disease. Some studies have found an additional correlation between periodontal disease and pre-term, low birth weight babies. However, these findings are inconclusive and differ from results of other studies. Though findings are inconclusive and further research is needed, we do know preventive dental care during pregnancy improves both oral and overall health and is safe for both mother and child.
When the kidneys do not function properly, they release the by-products of incomplete protein breakdown. As a result, a patient with kidney disease may have bad breath and may also notice an unpleasant taste in the mouth. Other signs are dry mouth and a metallic taste. With dry mouth, the amount of saliva is reduced and its normal cleansing effect is diminished. This allows bacteria to increase, potentially leading to the development of gingivitis and gum disease.
Anxiety and Stress
Did you know emotional anxiety can also affect your oral health? Stress affects the immune system, which fights against the bacteria that cause periodontal disease, making a person suffering from anxiety more prone to gum infection.
Take Control of Your Oral Health
Although seeing a dentist is no substitute for a visit to a physician, regular dental checkups can reveal much about your overall health. If a dentist finds a potential health issue, he or she can refer you to a physician for further follow up. While additional research is needed to determine the direct links between oral health and overall health, it’s a given that regular dental checkups, professional cleanings and good oral hygiene practices can contribute to good overall health.
Checklist for Good Oral Health
For overall good oral health:
- Make regular dental appointments to have your teeth professionally cleaned and examined. A dentist’s exam may detect poor nutrition and hygiene, as well as provide clues to your overall well-being.
- Brush for two to three minutes, twice a day, with fluoridated toothpaste. Be sure to brush along the gum line.
- Floss daily to remove plaque from places your toothbrush can’t reach.
- Eat a healthy diet to provide essential nutrients (vitamins A and C).
- Avoid cigarettes and smokeless tobacco.
- Treat dental infections immediately.
- Carefully follow your physician’s and dentist’s instructions about health care, including using prescription medications, such as antibiotics, as directed.
- Share your complete dental and medical history with your dentist, including any medications or diet supplements you are currently taking.
For good heart health and healthy pregnancies:
- Schedule regular dental exams and cleanings to remove bacteria, plaque and tartar and to detect early signs of gum disease.
- Eat nutritious, well-balanced meals that include fresh fruits, raw vegetables and dairy products.
- If you are pregnant, have your dentist assess your oral health and map out a dental plan for the rest of your pregnancy. Talk to your dentist about whether scheduling an extra cleaning during pregnancy is right for you.
- Per the recommendation of the American Dental Association, avoid routine or elective x-rays during pregnancy.
For diabetes management:
- Make sure your dentist knows you have diabetes and share your complete medical history, including any medications you are currently taking.
- Carefully follow your physician’s and dentist’s instructions about health care, and reduce or eliminate sugars and starches from your diet.
For cancer prevention and early detection:
- During your next dental visit, ask your dentist to do an oral cancer screening.
- Periodically perform self-examinations to detect oral cancer by examining your face, cheeks, jaw and neck regularly for any changes or lumps.
- See your dentist immediately if you observe:
- Any sore that persists longer than two weeks
- A swelling, growth or lump anywhere in or around the mouth or neck
- White or red patches in the mouth or on the lips
- Repeated bleeding from the mouth or throat
- Difficulty swallowing or persistent hoarseness
- Don’t smoke or use spit tobacco.
- Limit your alcohol intake.
- Eat plenty of fruits and vegetables.
The oral health information on this website is intended for educational purposes only. You should always consult a licensed dentist or other qualified health care professional for any questions concerning your oral health.
1 Gum Disease and other Diseases. American Academy of Periodontology. Retreived October 28, 2012 from: http://www.perio.org/consumer/other-diseases
2 Oral Manifestations of Systemic Disease. American Academy of Family Physicians. Retrieved October 29, 2012 from: http://www.aafp.org/afp/2010/1201/p1381.html
3 1 Little, James W., Falace, Donald A., Miller, Craig S., & Rhodus, Nelson L. (2008). Dental Management of the Medically Compromised Patient (7th ed.). St. Louis, MO: Mosby Elsevier.
4 Gum Disease and Cardiovascular Disease. American Academy of Periodontology. Retrieved October 26, 2012 from: http://www.perio.org/consumer/heart_disease
5 Diabetes and Periodontal Disease. American Academy of Periodontology. Retrieved October 26, 2012 from: http://www.perio.org/consumer/gum-disease-and-diabetes.htm
6 Suri, L. et al, Delayed tooth eruption: Pathogenesis, diagnosis, and treatment. A literature review. American Journal of Orthodontics and Dentofacial Orthopedics , (October 2004) Vol 126, Number 4