How does brushing your teeth affect your health?

If you want to help improve your overall health, an easy place to start is inside your mouth.
If you want to help improve your overall health, an easy place to start is inside your mouth.

Few people really love a trip to the dentist. But even though cavities and plaque may seem like minor nuisances, problems with your oral hygiene can be symptomatic of -- or even lead to -- much more serious health problems. Inflamed and bleeding gums are a sign that something isn't quite right with your oral health. Bleeding is especially problematic because that means there's an open route for bacteria from your mouth to enter your blood stream [source: Lifehacker].

Endocarditis and cardiovascular disease are two of the problems that can start when bacteria enters the blood stream. Endocarditis is an infection of the heart's inner lining, chambers or valves. Though it primarily affects people who have pre-existing heart conditions or artificial implants, endocarditis can occur in healthy hearts, too. Symptoms include fever and fatigue, often mimicking influenza. Treatment involves antibiotics, but if the bacteria are drug-resistant or the infection too far advanced, surgery may be required. In some cases, endocarditis can be fatal [source: National Heart Lung and Blood Institute].

Cardiovascular disease is an umbrella term that encompasses a number of heart problems, including coronary artery disease and congestive heart failure, and it's the number one cause of death in the United States [source: CDC]. Research suggests that in some cases, cardiovascular disease may start out as periodontitis, a severe form of gum disease affecting the ligaments and bones of the jaw [source: PubMed Health]. Though there are other reasons you might be vulnerable to cardiovascular disease, including high stress levels and poor diet, maintaining good oral health can help minimize your risk.

Sometimes, oral health problems are caused by other illnesses. Scientists have established that people with diabetes are more susceptible to infections, and patients whose blood sugar is unstable are even more apt to develop gum disease or periodontitis. In turn, those with periodontitis have more difficulty controlling their blood sugar [source: American Academy of Periodontology]. It's a vicious cycle, so those with diabetes should work with their physician and dentist to quickly treat any oral problems that may arise.

Sjogren's Syndrome is an auto-immune disorder where the body's white blood cells mistakenly attack moisture-producing glands. This impacts organs and systems throughout the body, including saliva production. Saliva is vital to your oral health -- without it, your mouth isn't able to ward off infection as easily, and problems like periodontitis are likely to arise [source: SSF]. Medication can help ease the symptoms, but as with diabetes, it's important to be vigilant with your dental care.

Now that we know the significant impact that poor oral hygiene can have on your overall health, click to the next page for a refresher course on maintaining a healthy mouth.