Oral health: A window to your overall health

While the eyes may be the window to the soul, your mouth is a window to your body's health. The state of your oral health can offer lots of clues about your overall health.

Oral health and overall health are more connected than you might realize.Your oral health is connected to many other health conditions beyond your mouth. Sometimes the first sign of a disease shows up in your mouth. In other cases, infections in your mouth, such as gum disease, can cause problems in other areas of your body. Learn more about this intimate connection between oral health and overall health.

The connection between oral health and overall health:
Your mouth is normally teeming with bacteria. Usually you can keep these bacteria under control with good oral health care, such as daily brushing and flossing. Saliva is also a key defense against bacteria and viruses. It contains enzymes that destroy bacteria in different ways.

But harmful bacteria can sometimes grow out of control and lead to periodontitis, a serious gum infection.When your gums are healthy, bacteria in your mouth usually don't enter your bloodstream. However, gum disease may provide bacteria a port of entry into your bloodstream.

Sometimes invasive dental treatments can also allow bacteria to enter your bloodstream. And medications or treatments that reduce saliva flow or disrupt the normal balance of bacteria in your mouth may also lead to oral changes, making it easier for bacteria to enter your bloodstream.

Some researchers believe that these bacteria and inflammation from your mouth are linked to other health problems in the rest of your body.
Oral health and other health conditions:
Here's a look at some of the diseases and conditions that may be linked to oral health:
  • Cardiovascular disease - research shows that several types of cardiovascular disease may be linked to oral health. These include heart disease, clogged arteries, stroke and bacterial endocarditis. Some researchers believe that bacteria from gum disease can enter your bloodstream and travel through your arteries to your heart, affecting your cardiovascular system. Although periodontal disease seems to be associated with heart disease, more studies are needed before the link can be confirmed with certainty.
  • Pregnancy and birth - gum disease has been linked to premature birth. Some research has shown that disease-causing organisms in a pregnant woman's mouth can wind up in the placenta or amniotic fluid, possibly causing premature birth. Unfortunately, treating periodontal disease during pregnancy may be too late, because the infection may have already spread in the woman's body. This is why it's vital to maintain excellent oral health before you get pregnant.
  • Diabetes - diabetes increases your risk of gum disease, cavities, tooth loss, dry mouth, and a variety of oral infections. Conversely, poor oral health can make your diabetes more difficult to control. Infections may cause your blood sugar to rise and require more insulin to keep it under control.
  • HIV/AIDS - in some cases, one of the first signs of AIDS may appear in your mouth, with severe gum infection. You may also develop persistent white spots or unusual lesions on your tongue or in your mouth.
  • Osteoporosis - the first stages of bone loss may show up in your teeth. Your dentist may be able to spot this on routine dental X-rays. If bone loss worsens from year to year, your dentist can suggest that you discuss the issue with your other health care providers.
  • Other conditions - many other conditions may make their presence known in your mouth before you know anything's wrong. These may include Sjogren's syndrome, certain cancers, eating disorders, syphilis, gonorrhea and substance abuse.
What you can do about oral health?
If you didn't already have enough reasons to take good care of your mouth, teeth and gums, the relationship between your oral health and your overall health provides even more. Resolve to practice good oral hygiene every day. You're making an investment in your overall health, not just for now, but for the future, too.

1998-2007 Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research (MFMER).
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