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A healthy mouth and a healthy body

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Margo Kerrigan, M.P.H., Area Director
Indian Health Service California Area Office

The mouth is a window into the health of the body. The mouth can show signs of nutritional deficiencies or general infection. Systemic diseases, such as diabetes and AIDS, may first become apparent because of mouth lesions or other oral problems.

The mouth is filled with countless bacteria. Some of these bacteria are linked to tooth decay and periodontal disease. Periodontal disease (gum disease) is a chronic inflammatory infectious disease. The advanced form of periodontal disease is called periodontitis. Some researchers suspect that bacteria and inflammation linked to periodontitis play a role in some systemic diseases or conditions, such as diabetes, cardiovascular disease, stroke and bacterial pneumonia. Likewise, diseases such as diabetes, blood cell disorders, HIV infections and AIDS can lower the bodys resistance to infection, making periodontal diseases more severe.

Diabetic patients have a compromised ability to respond to infections and are at greater risk of periodontal disease. In fact, diabetics are more likely to develop the severe form of periodontitis than non-diabetics. Some studies suggest that periodontitis can make it more difficult for people with diabetes to control their blood sugar.

Several studies link chronic inflammation from periodontitis with the development of cardiovascular problems. Bacteria found in periodontal disease can lead to blood clots, increasing the risk for heart attacks and strokes. In fact, at least one study concluded that patients with severe gum disease double their risk of a fatal heart attack. People who smoke or use alcohol are at increased risk for periodontitis and other conditions, such as oral cancer.

What does this mean for you? Given the potential link between periodontitis and systemic health problems, preventing periodontitis may turn out to be an important step in maintaining overall health. In most cases, that can be done with good daily oral hygiene (brushing and flossing) and regular professional care.

Here is what you can do:

Brush your teeth thoroughly twice a day. Clean between your teeth with floss or another type of interdental cleaner once a day. Your dentist may recommend using an antimicrobial mouth rinse as part of your daily oral hygiene routine. .

Eat a balanced diet and limit snacks, which may reduce your risk for developing tooth decay and periodontal disease.

Schedule regular dental checkups. Professional cleanings are the only way to remove calculus (tartar), which traps plaque bacteria along the gum line.

If you notice any of these signs, see your dentist.

  • Gums that bleed during brushing and flossing;
  • Red, swollen or tender gums;
  • Gums that have pulled away from your teeth;
  • Persistent bad breath;
  • Pus between your teeth and gums;
  • Loose or separating teeth;
  • A change in the way your teeth fit together when you bite;
  • A change in the fit of partial dentures.

    Tell your dentist about changes in your overall health, particularly any recent illness or chronic conditions. Provide an updated health history, including medication use-both prescription and over-the-counter products. If you use tobacco, talk to your dentist about options for quitting.

    If you are pregnant or thinking about becoming pregnant, pay particular attention to your teeth and gums. That's because pregnancy-and the changing hormone levels that occur with it-can exaggerate some dental problems. Taking good care of your oral health is important for you and your infant.

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