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.
Improving Your Oral Hygiene
Keeping your teeth clean is important, but don't neglect the rest of your mouth. Flossing and rinsing with mouthwash, in addition to brushing, are important parts of your dental routine. The American Dental Association recommends that you brush at least twice a day, with one of those brushings taking place before bed [source: ADA]. Some people like to brush after meals, though bear in mind that you should wait at least 30 minutes after ingesting acidic foods or beverages such as orange juice [source: Carr].
Using fluoride toothpaste, hold the toothbrush against your teeth at a slight angle and brush with short back-and-forth motions. Be sure to brush all surfaces of your teeth. Brushing too vigorously can cause gum damage, so don't get carried away. Replace your toothbrush about every three months or when the bristles begin to look worn [source: Mayo Clinic].
Both flossing and mouth rinses help eliminate plaque in hard-to-reach areas that brushing can't catch. You should floss once a day. Be careful, though -- improper flossing can cut your gums. Instead of snapping the floss between your teeth and into the gum, gently move the floss back and forth until you reach the gum line. Then, cup the floss around one tooth and slide it into the space between the gum and tooth. Carefully scrape the side of the tooth. Do this to each of your teeth, including the far side of your back molars. If you follow flossing with mouthwash, antimicrobial mouth rinses have been shown to reduce plaque and gingivitis and can give you an extra layer of protection against bad breath [source: ADA].
Certain people should be especially vigilant with their dental health, even if you're not having problems. If your family history indicates that you might be at risk for heart disease or diabetes, it's best to keep on top of your oral health so that any issues down the line will be more manageable. Gum disease may also cause complications in pregnant women. Though doctors and dentists aren't quite sure why, expectant mothers suffering from gum disease are more likely to deliver early and to deliver low-birth-weight babies. [source: WebMD]. If you're pregnant or thinking about having children, talk to your dentist about protective oral health measures.
All that brushing and flossing might be a pain, but it's nothing compared to the consequences for your overall health if you don't take care of your teeth. Aside from the longer-term benefits, you'll love having fresher breath and fewer cavities. Surely that's something to smile about.
More Great Links
- American Academy of Periodontology. "Connection Between Gum Disease and Diabetes." (Sept. 3, 2011) http://www.perio.org/consumer/mbc.diabetes.htm
- American Dental Association. "Brushing Your Teeth." (Sept. 5, 2011) http://www.ada.org/5624.aspx?currentTab=1
- American Dental Association. "Cleaning Your Teeth & Gums." (Sept. 5, 2011) http://www.ada.org/2624.aspx
- Carr, Alan, D.M.D. "Brushing Your Teeth: How often and when?" Mayo Clinic. Aug. 31, 2010. (Sept. 5, 2011) http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/brushing-your-teeth/AN02098
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). "Heart Disease Facts and Statistics." Dec. 7, 2009. (August 30, 2011) http://www.cdc.gov/heartdisease/statistics.htm
- Mayo Clinic. "Oral health: Brush up on dental care basics." Feb. 17, 2011. (Sept. 6, 2011) http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/dental/DE00003
- National Heart Lung and Blood Institute. "What is Endocarditis?" Oct. 1, 2010. (Sept. 1, 2011) http://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health/health-topics/topics/endo/
- Pub Med Health. "Periodontitis." Feb. 22, 2010. (Sept. 1, 2011) http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmedhealth/PMH0002054/
- Rogers, Matthew. "Not Just for Cavities: Brushing Your Teeth Affects Your Body's Total Health." Life Hacker. June 10, 2011. (Sept. 1, 2011) http://lifehacker.com/5810652/not-just-for-cavities-brushing-your-teeth-affects-your-bodys-total-health
- Sjogren's Syndrome Foundation. "About Sjogren's Syndrome." (Sept. 3, 2011) http://www.sjogrens.org/home/about-sjogrens-syndrome
- Sjogren's Syndrome Foundation. "Dry Mouth: A Hallmark Symptom of Sjogren's Syndrome." (Sept. 3, 2011) http://www.sjogrens.org/home/about-sjogrens-syndrome/symptoms/dry-mouth
- WebMD. "Smoking and Dental Health: Yellow Teeth, Bad Breath, and Other Smoking Effects." (Sept. 5, 2011) http://www.webmd.com/oral-health/guide/smoking-oral-health