If you need care for your teeth, gums and mouth, you head to the dentist. If you need care for just about any other part of your body, you see your primary care provider. Yet, you might not realize how closely your mouth health and your overall health are connected.
Your mouth health (also known as oral health) is centered around the health of your teeth, gums and mouth. But issues that start in your mouth can cause problems in many other parts of your body.
We spoke with Andrea Padilla, MD, a family medicine doctor with Banner — University Medicine, to learn more about how your oral health can affect your overall health.
Your mouth health and heart disease
“Your mouth contains bacteria that can cause infections, such as cavities or gum diseases that can spread to the rest of the body like the heart. These bacteria can cause serious infections, including infective endocarditis (an infection of the heart's valves that can cause blood clots), strokes and long-term complications,” Dr. Padilla said.
Your mouth health and diabetes
If you have diabetes, you’re more likely to have gum disease. “If the sugar level is high in your blood, it’s high in your saliva, too. And bacteria use sugar as food,” said Dr. Padilla. You may also have less saliva. Your mouth can be dry, your gums can be irritated and bleed and infections in your mouth can take longer to heal.
In turn, gum disease can make it harder to manage your blood sugar levels. That’s because, with gum disease, your body releases more glucose (sugar) into your bloodstream.
If you have diabetes, you should be sure to see your dentist regularly as part of your treatment plan.
Your mouth health and breathing
Gum disease raises your risk of pneumonia and other respiratory conditions. That’s because the bacteria that cause gum disease can spread to your lungs and cause infections. To help prevent these infections, it’s important to take good care of your teeth and gums.
Your mouth health and cancer
If you have gum disease, you’re more likely to develop oral cancer. That’s because the inflammation you have with gum disease can damage cells and make them more likely to become cancerous.
If you have cancer, head and neck radiation and chemotherapy can cause dry mouth and even life-threatening oral infections. These complications can happen when you’re getting cancer treatment or even months or years later.
- Radiation to the head and neck can damage your salivary gland cells, so you produce less saliva. Without enough saliva, you can develop tooth decay and other infections.
- Chemotherapy kills fast-growing cells. That includes cancer cells as well as some of the healthy cells that line your mouth. So you could end up with mouth sores.
It’s important to see your dentist regularly. Your dentist may spot signs of oral cancer early when it’s easiest to treat.
Your mouth health and pregnancy
If you’re pregnant and have gum disease, you’re more likely to give birth early (premature birth) and have a low birth weight baby. That’s because the inflammation you have with gum disease can travel through the bloodstream and affect the placenta (the organ that gives unborn babies nutrition and oxygen).
“Because of hormone changes, many pregnant people suffer from gingivitis or inflammation of the gums. These issues can make pregnant people more likely to get infections that could cause preterm birth or low birth weight,” Dr. Padilla said.
During pregnancy, it’s important to talk to your health care provider about how to control gum disease.
What to do
To keep oral health problems at bay, it’s important to take good care of your mouth, teeth and gums. Here’s what can help:
- Brush your teeth at least twice a day. Use a soft-bristled toothbrush, since harder bristles can harm your gums. Choose a toothpaste with fluoride.
- When you brush your teeth, brush your tongue as well. A lot of bacteria live on your tongue. You can use your toothbrush or a tongue scraper to clean your tongue.
- Floss your teeth every day. If regular floss is hard for you to use, try disposable flossers.
- See your dentist regularly. Most people have dental checkups every six months. If you have gum disease or health problems that could be worse if you have gum disease, you might want to schedule checkups more often.
- Ask your dentist if using mouthwash is a good idea for you.
- Drink plenty of water. That can help clear out sugar and bits of food between brushings.
The bottom line
Taking good care of your gums, teeth and mouth can help keep your whole body healthy. Poor oral health is linked with problems with your heart, diabetes, breathing, cancer and pregnancy, so it’s important to take good care of your teeth and gums and to see your dentist regularly. Your dentist, health care provider or a Banner Health expert can recommend a schedule for dental care based on your oral health and your overall health.