There is mounting evidence of a connection between oral health and a person’s overall health. It is well documented that a high percentage of health conditions have a corresponding oral component such as swollen or bleeding gums, ulcers, dry mouth, bad breath, a metallic taste, or various other changes in the oral cavity.
Your mouth is normally teeming with bacteria. Usually, you can keep this bacteria under control with good oral health care, such as daily brushing and flossing. Saliva is also a key defense against bacteria and viruses: it contains enzymes that destroy bacteria in different ways. However, harmful bacteria can sometimes grow out of control and lead to periodontitis, a serious gum infection.
When your gums are healthy, bacteria in your mouth usually do not enter your bloodstream. However, gum disease and treatment and invasive dental treatments may provide bacteria a port of entry into your bloodstream. Medications or treatments that reduce saliva flow or disrupt the normal balance of bacteria in your mouth may also lead to oral changes, making it easier for bacteria to enter your bloodstream.
Since most people have regular oral examinations, their dentist may be the first health care provider to diagnose a health problem in its early stages. Some health problems that your dentist may become aware of include the following:
- Diabetes: According to the American Academy of Periodontology, people with diabetes are more likely to have a dental disease than people of sound health. Researchers think this is because diabetes reduces the body’s resistance to infection. Diabetes increases your risk of gum disease, cavities, tooth loss, dry mouth, and a variety of oral infections. Conversely, poor oral health can make your diabetes more difficult to control: infections may cause your blood sugar to rise and require more insulin to keep it under control.
- Cancer: As part of a routine dental exam, the dentist screens patients for oral cancers, including cancer of the head and neck. Other cancers the dentist may recognize include skin cancer, cancer of the jaw bone, and thyroid cancer.
- Heart disease: Studies have shown that people with moderate or advanced gum disease have a greater prevalence of cardiovascular disease (CVD), including heart disease and stroke, than patients with no gum disease, gingivitis, or early periodontitis. However, studies have not established that one causes the other — a difficult task because many of the risk factors for gum disease and CVD (smoking, poor diet and nutrition, diabetes, being male, and having a low socioeconomic status) are the same.
- Pregnancy & Birth Risks: Gum disease has been linked to premature birth, which is why it is vital to maintain excellent oral health before and during pregnancy.
- HIV/AIDS: Oral problems are very common if you have HIV/AIDS. Common symptoms include ulcers, dry mouth, and related painful mucosal lesions. Mouth problems are caused by either fungal, viral, or bacterial infections, and, in some cases, one of the first signs of AIDS may be severe gum infection. You may also develop persistent white spots or unusual lesions on your tongue or in your mouth.
- Osteoporosis: The first stages of bone loss may show up in your teeth. Systemic loss of bone density in osteoporosis, including bone in the jaw, may cause the bone supporting your teeth to become increasingly susceptible to infectious destruction. Your dentist may be able to spot this on a routine clinical examination or with dental X-rays. If bone loss worsens, your dentist may suggest that you discuss the issue with your other health care providers.
- Kidney Disease: When the kidneys do not function properly, the by-products of incomplete protein breakdown are released. As a result, a patient with kidney disease may struggle with bad breath and an unpleasant taste in the mouth. Other signs are dry mouth and a metallic taste. In the case of dry mouth, the amount of saliva is reduced and its normal cleansing effect is diminished. This allows bacteria to increase, leading to the development of gingivitis and gum disease.
- Anxiety: Did you know that emotional anxiety can affect your oral health? Stress affects the immune system, which fights against the bacteria that cause periodontal disease, making a person who suffers from anxiety more prone to gum infection.
- Respiratory & Periodontal Disease: If you have periodontal disease, you may be at increased risk for respiratory disease. Infections in the mouth, such as periodontal disease, are associated with increased respiratory infection. If you are at risk for respiratory disease or periodontal disease, see a dentist for a periodontal evaluation because healthy gums can lead to a healthier body.
- Joint Replacement & Periodontal Disease: For people with knee or hip replacements, periodontal disease can increase the risk of complications. Bacteria associated with periodontal disease can become lodged in the artificial joint and potentially cause joint failure. Again, this is why patients with recently placed artificial joints require antibiotics before dental treatment.
- Other Medical Conditions: There are more than 120 medical conditions – many of them life-threatening – that can be detected in the early stages by a dentist, including thyroid problems, high blood pressure, asthma, sleep and breathing disorders, skin rashes, bruxism (teeth grinding), tuberculosis, drug abuse, anorexia, digestive disorders, and upper respiratory problems. Many other conditions may make their presence known in your mouth before you know anything is wrong. These may include Sjogren’s syndrome*, certain cancers, eating disorders, syphilis, gonorrhea and substance abuse.
* Sjogren’s syndrome is an autoimmune disorder that affects about 1 in 500 people. Middle-aged women are more predominantly affected than men, comprising about 90% of those affected. The most common symptoms of Sjogren’s syndrome are excessively dry eyes and mouth due to lower tear and saliva production. Other symptoms of Sjogren’s syndrome occur in varying degrees. These can include arthritis, pain in the muscles and nerves, low thyroid function, a swollen thyroid gland, and increased pain or swelling in the lymph nodes. Those affected may also suffer from fatigue and sleep deprivation.