The health of your teeth, gums, and mouth impacts more than your smile. In fact, oral health provides clues about your overall health. Learn more about the connection between the two and how you can protect your oral health.
Bacteria’s role in oral health
Our mouth allows us to breathe, eat, and smile, and it’s a gateway for bacteria. Bacteria are normal and controllable with good oral care, but bacteria can lead to problems without proper oral hygiene. Common oral health problems include tooth decay (dental caries), gum (periodontal) disease, and oral cancer.
Links between oral health and overall health
Further, some studies suggest that oral bacteria and gum disease (periodontitis) are linked to other health issues. Poor oral health may contribute to:
- Heart disease. Some research suggests that coronary artery disease and related complications may be linked to the inflammation and infection oral bacteria can cause. “Patients with a history of myocardial infarction (heart attack) or cerebrovascular attack (stroke) have worse oral health than control individuals,” says Summit Health family medicine physician Reintine Han, MD.
- Pregnancy complications. Premature birth and low birth weight have been linked to periodontitis.
- Pneumonia. If oral bacteria are aspirated into the lungs, it could result in pneumonia.
“Your mouth is the main portal to your respiratory and digestive organs,” adds Summit Health advanced practice nurse Gbemisola Alli, APN. “It’s important to keep bacteria under control and prevent infection from traveling to the bloodstream.”
Conversely, some diseases can affect your oral health. These include:
- Diabetes. High blood sugar negatively impacts oral health, and severe gum disease can affect glycemic control. “Individuals with diabetes have at least a three times greater risk of periodontitis than those without diabetes,” Dr. Han says. “Studies have shown that patients with well-controlled diabetes have no increased risk of periodontitis compared to individuals without diabetes.”
- Osteoporosis. “Your teeth are supported by bone,” Ms. Alli says, referring to the part of the jawbone known as the alveolar process. According to some studies, the weakening of bone caused by osteoporosis is related to periodontitis and tooth loss.
- Alzheimer’s disease. Oral health can worsen as the disease progresses.
- Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD). Acid reflux can wear away tooth enamel, leading to an increased risk of cavities and, in extreme cases, tooth loss.
Protecting your oral health
Dr. Han and Ms. Alli emphasize good oral hygiene to protect your oral health.
- Brush your teeth twice daily with fluoride toothpaste.
- Floss daily to remove plaque.
- Visit your dentist regularly for a check-up and professional cleaning.
- Eat a healthy diet that limits sugary foods and drinks. “A well-balanced diet helps you maintain a healthier immune system, helps prevent heart disease, and slows diabetes disease progression,” Dr. Han adds.
- Avoid tobacco use.
Other health behaviors that can lead to poor oral health include excessive alcohol and drug use. “Environmental exposures, such as to secondhand smoke or lead, also increase your dental caries risk,” Dr. Han says.
The relationship between oral and overall health also highlights the role of primary care. “Follow up with your primary care physician for check-ups, routine health screenings, and immunizations,” Dr. Han says. “The HPV vaccine, for example, protects you against the types of HPV (human papillomavirus) that can cause oral cancers.”
“Just as important as it is to schedule check-ups and health screenings, it’s essential to take care of your oral health,” Ms. Alli says. It’s an investment not only in your smile, but also in your general health, self-esteem, and overall quality of life.