Poor Oral Hygiene ... The Overlooked Cause of Chronic Disease

Kristine Burke, MD
April 4, 2016

How many times a day do you brush your teeth? Floss? Use a tongue scraper?

Be honest.

Twice a day is ok, but after every meal is even better.

Let me throw another question your way: How many times have you been to your primary care doctor and talked about your oral hygiene habits?

I bet the answer is never.

But at True Health, an extensive oral examination and assessment are part of our routine visits all the time.

And I'll tell you why. About 47 percent of people 30 and older have some form of periodontal (gum) disease, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). That's nearly half of all Americans! Even more shocking is that most people don't even know they have it.

So what is periodontal disease anyway?

There are millions of bacteria that live below your gum line and on the back of your tongue. It sounds pretty gross but it’s actually natural.

Here’s where it becomes a problem. These bacteria form a sticky substance on your teeth known as plaque. Yet if your oral hygiene habits are subpar, the plaque hardens and turns to tartar, which can only be removed by your dentist. If plaque and tarter build up, your gums get inflamed and you can get gingivitis, a mild form of periodontal disease.

Some of the early warning signs you should look for include red, swollen, tender or bleeding gums, sensitivity, pain when you eat, or persistent bad breath.

If left untreated, gingivitis can lead to periodontitis, the most severe form of periodontal disease. Periodontitis can cause the gums to actually pull away from the teeth and form pockets that are wide open to infection. It doesn’t sound too pretty, does it?

So if your dentist ever mentioned that you have pockets 4 mm or greater in depth, you already have the early signs of periodontal disease.

As plaque continues to infiltrate below the gum line, and the body's immune response leads to inflammation (link to blog post), the gums, bone and connective tissue can get damaged and you can actually lose your teeth altogether.

So even if your gums are occasionally puffy and sore, or even bleed slightly, you could have full-blown periodontal disease sooner than you think, if you don’t nip it in the bud now.

What causes periodontal disease?

Poor oral hygiene is hands down the number one cause of periodontal disease. It’s also the easiest and most effective way to prevent and reverse it. Here are some others:

  • Diabetes: Research shows that an overload of unhealthy bacteria can actually increase your hemoglobin A1C level, blood sugar, and put you at risk for diabetes. Gum disease is also linked to high blood pressure and elevated levels of LDL (bad) cholesterol, both of which could put you at risk for heart disease. And if you’re overweight, obese or have an unhealthy diet, you’re more susceptible to gum disease because your body can’t fight off the infection and inflammation.
  • Smoking: Tobacco use of any kind doubles your risk for gum disease, weakens your immune system so it can’t defend itself against infection, and makes it more difficult to treat.
  • Hormones: About 40 percent of pregnant women have gingivitis, cavities, and periodontitis, according to American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG). Oral contraceptives and menopause (link to menopause post) can also make your gums more sensitive and vulnerable to infection.
  • Prescription drugs: Certain medications like anti-depressants can increase your risk for gum disease.
  • Genetics: Some people are more susceptible to gum disease regardless of how well they take care of their teeth and gums, but there are ways to reduce some of the risk.

Periodontal disease can be a serious condition that can cause a host of other health problems. The good news is that it’s preventable and if identified early, can even be reversed.

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