From a young age, you’re told how to maintain a steady oral hygiene ritual – brush, rinse, floss – but apart from having pearly whites and keeping bad breath at bay, what’s the point? It’s more than a matter of vanity – slacking off when it comes to oral hygiene gives bacteria (normally kept at bay by toothpaste and floss) a chance to multiply to unhealthy levels, which may lead to oral infections such as tooth decay and gum disease. Furthermore, poor oral health affects not just your mouth, but the rest of your body too.
A decline in oral health may affect, be affected by, or contribute to a variety of diseases and conditions, including:
- Endocarditis: An infection of the inner lining of your heart (endocardium), which typically occurs when bacteria from another part of your body – for example, your mouth – get into your bloodstream and attach to damaged areas of the heart.
- Cardiovascular disease: There exists some research that indicates that heart disease, clogged arteries and stroke may be linked to inflammation and infections caused by oral bacteria.
- Pregnancy/Birth: Periodontitis, a condition that affects the tissues around the teeth, has been linked to premature birth and low birth weight.
- Diabetes: The body’s resistance to infection is lowered by diabetes, which puts gums at risk. Research shows that those suffering from gum disease have a harder time controlling their blood sugar levels.
- HIV/AIDS: Those with HIV or AIDS are more likely to experience oral health problems (such as painful mucosal lesions) due to their weakened immune system.
- Osteoporosis: A condition that causes bones to become weak and brittle, which may be linked to periodontal bone loss and tooth loss.
- Alzheimer’s Disease: Tooth loss before the age of 35 may be a risk factor for Alzheimer’s disease, the most common form of dementia – there are currently over 300,000 Australians living with the disease today.
- Other conditions: Sjogren’s syndrome may also be linked to oral health. It’s an immune system disorder that causes dry mouth and eating disorders.
While we’re talking about the correlations between oral health and overall health, it is useful to note that certain medications (such as decongestants, antidepressants, antihistamines, painkillers and diuretics) can reduce saliva flow. Healthy saliva flow is vital for optimum oral health, as it washes away food and aids in neutralising acids produced by bacteria in the mouth. If you are taking any of the aforementioned medications, it’s important to let your dentist know so that they can adjust your treatments as necessary.
So, what’s the lesson to be learned here? Protect your oral health! In order to do this, it’s important to practice good oral hygiene every day. Here are some steps to take, if you aren’t already:
- Brush your teeth at least twice a day.
- Floss regularly – preferably daily.
- Use an alcohol-free mouthwash. Alcohol dries out the mouth, allowing invasive bacteria to take over.
- Eat a healthy diet and limit snacking between meals.
- Drink lots of water.
- Replace your toothbrush every three to four months. Sooner if the bristles are frayed. Worn toothbrush heads are less effective at removing food and plaque, which may lead to gum disease and gingivitis.
- Schedule regular dental checkups, even if there’s nothing “wrong”. Dentists can pick up on problems while they’re still small – remember, prevention is better than a cure!
- Contact your dentist as soon as an oral health problem arises.
Dr.Ben Wilcox is the practice principal of Shore Dental in Sydney’s Neutral Bay. With a specialist interest in cosmetic and restorative dentistry, Ben’s a firm believer in the integral connections between your dental care and your overall health. You can read more from Ben on the Shore Dental blog.
Medical Doctor, author, speaker, media presenter and health industry consultant, Dr Joe Kosterich wants you to be healthy and get the most out of life.
Joe writes for numerous medical and mainstream publications, is clinical editor at Medical Forum Magazine, and is also a regular on radio and television.
Joe is Medical Advisor to Medicinal Cannabis Company Little Green Pharma, Chairman of Australian Tobacco Harm Reduction Association and sits on the board of Arthritis and Osteoporosis WA. He is often called to give opinions in medico legal cases.