Dental health affecting your overall health has never been more of a focus in dental care as it is today: With three out of every four Americans having some form of periodontal disease, it’s likely affecting either you—or a family member.
For a long time dentists thought that periodontal disease or issues of the mouth were localized—meaning if there was a bacterial issue or gum disease, it was strictly limited to the oral cavity.
L. Stanley Brysh, director of dental services at Meriter’s Max Pohle Dental Clinic, says we now know oral health issues can lead to even bigger problems where you might least expect them—your heart, and even your child if you’re pregnant.
“Thirty-five years ago we didn’t recognize that. Now we know there’s a direct correlation between the two.”
The current research points to bacteria manifesting itself in pockets that form between gum tissue and the teeth, and from there the bacteria is carried via the bloodstream to our organs—like the heart, where harmful bacteria can exacerbate heart disease or stroke.
“Everything comes in the mouth—so if you develop periodontal disease, that can run rampant and cause problems,” agrees William Graf, dentist and part owner at First Choice Dental.
What symptoms should you or your dentist look for? According to the American Dental Association, be aware of persistent bad breath; gums that bleed when teeth are brushed; red, swollen and tender gums; gums that have pulled away from the teeth; loose or separating teeth; pus between the gum and tooth; and a change in the bite.
What to Do
At a dental checkup your dentist will always do a full mouth exam. That will include taking X-rays to look for destruction around teeth or decay, an oral cancer visual check of the lips and tongue and a periodontal probe of gum pocket depth. Three millimeters or less is considered ideal because larger gum pockets mean more of an opportunity for bacteria to manifest and spread.
Often dentists can even pinpoint a health concern by inspecting the gums; periodontal disease can point to diseases like diabetes, heart disease and other health conditions. Those who do have health issues may have to see the dentist more often—three to four times a year instead of twice a year. Diabetic patients in particular have to be vigilant because they heal more slowly.
For those who have gum health problems a dentist might do a root planing procedure or periodontal maintenance to ensure that gum pockets stay clear and diseased deposits are removed from the roots of your teeth. In the end, oral main- tenance is required to ensure that teeth stay healthy, overall health isn’t affected and any (undiagnosed) diseases are diagnosed and treated.
Quick Read: Tech Savvy
Dentist offices are using two new technologies to diagnose and treat oral health issues more effectively.
One is the DIAGNOdent, which scans teeth with a laser light that checks for hidden decay. Once a tooth is scanned the machine returns a number between 0 and 99; 25 and above is considered a sign that there may be hidden tooth decay.
The ViziLite Plus is an oral lesion identification and marking system. Patients simply rinse with a cleansing solution and then the dentist examines the mouth using the ViziLite. Many reports suggest that head and neck cancer, particularly tongue cancer, are increasing in many young adults—which may be due to viral infections, like HPV 16/18. The American Cancer Society recommends people have an oral soft tissue exam at least once a year.
Shayna Miller is associate editor of Madison Magazine.