Your parents were right. You need to brush and floss your teeth daily and thoroughly. Neglecting these healthy habits can do more than give you bad breath and cavities; your mouth is a doorway to your body. Food, water, air and germs from the outside world are invited inside you through your mouth and can be sucked down your airways or into your digestive system, making you sick now and possibly even increasing your risk of non-communicable diseases later.
Doorway to Your Body
“Our mouth is a gate into our body, which bacteria are happy to use,” says Henry Hackney, DMD, a dentist in Chicago. Our mouths, stomachs and lungs are already filled with microbes that make up their individual microbiomes. Some of these bacteria, viruses and fungi actually keep us healthy, but if different ones invade or a particular species overpopulates, it can wreak havoc. Pathogens from our mouths can even damage our hearts.
Not only can microbes get into your lungs and stomach directly from your mouth, but Hackney explains that inflammation can open up tiny blood vessels in your gums, allowing those pathogens to enter your bloodstream. This can cause inflammation or infection throughout the body.
Even visits to the very best hospitals come with risks, such as hospital-acquired bacterial infections like pneumonia. Nurses at one hospital implemented an enhanced oral-hygiene protocol for patients and managed to cut in half cases of hospital-acquired pneumonia among trauma patients. Of those who did get sick, fewer died.
Long-Term Disease Risk
It’s not completely clear how, but researchers have found that patients with periodontal disease are at higher risk for several non-infectious diseases such as heart disease and Alzheimer’s. An infection in the mouth “can lead to inflammation in other parts of your body as well as serious conditions, such as cardiovascular disease, dementia, cancer, especially kidney, pancreatic or blood cancer or adverse pregnancy outcomes for women,” explains Hackney.
“The correlation between gum disease and heart health is quite strong,” says Dmitry Tsvetov, DDS, MD, an oral surgeon in Temecula, California. One way this can happen is through an increase in inflammation. “Uncontrolled gum disease, or any other condition in the mouth that causes an inflammation, increases [a] generalized inflammatory state in the body, which can also have a devastating effect on the heart,” he adds. Sometimes gum disease can be prevented or treated with good oral hygiene, but some patients will need deep cleanings, medications or even surgery to control it.
In other cases, infections may trigger disease more directly. You’re more likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease if you’ve got signs of bacterial gum disease with specific bacteria at age 65 or older, according to a National Institute on Aging study.
Periodontal disease occurs in up to three-quarters of pregnant women. Researchers blame fluctuating hormones for the high incidence. It’s unclear how, but some studies have linked periodontitis to low birth weight and preterm birth.
Medicines That Can Cause Problems
Dry mouth is a common side effect of several medications, and it may be more than a mere annoyance. “Saliva also plays [an] important role in washing down germs,” says Hackney. That prevents those germs from multiplying.
Dry mouth is a side effect of many common drugs, including:
Anticholinergics, often used to treat COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease)
Tricyclic antidepressants, such as amitriptyline
What You Can Do
The best actions you can take are to brush your teeth twice and floss once every day, according to the American Dental Association. “It’s important to guard this entrance [to your body] by maintaining excellent oral hygiene and removing accumulating germs,” says Hackney.
If you’re experiencing dry mouth, drink extra water and check with your healthcare provider to see if it’s a side effect of a drug you’re using. Also, limit alcohol, tobacco and sugar intake, all of which can cause or exacerbate oral infections, cancer and chronic conditions like heart disease.
Finally, see your dentist to get a cleaning every six months. “Many problems with a person’s oral health are reversible and complications can be intercepted early on,” says Tsvetov, but “unaddressed infections can become uncontrollable.”