Oral health plays an essential role in the overall health and well-being of an individual. Without proper oral hygiene, the risk of oral or dental problems such as dental cavities, gum disease, and tooth loss increases significantly. However, maintaining oral hygiene is more important than most people think it is. This is because not many of us know that poor oral hygiene can also increase the risk of other health problems such as heart disease. Various studies have shown that people who have poor oral health are at an increased risk of cardiovascular conditions.
What is oral hygiene and why is it important?
Oral hygiene refers to the practice of keeping the teeth and oral cavity clean and free of harmful germs. The objective of maintaining oral hygiene is to reduce the risk of dental and other health problems. Regular brushing of teeth, flossing, and rinsing with mouthwash are some of the most effective techniques for maintaining oral hygiene.
Lack of proper oral hygiene or poor oral hygiene can facilitate the growth of acid-producing bacteria in the mouth and increase the risk of oral and dental problems. Some of the most common oral and dental problems are:
Cavities, also referred to as dental caries, is a condition in which certain areas of the tooth develop small holes and become permanently damaged. It is a fairly common condition that occurs when bacteria, food, and acid envelop the teeth and form a sticky film called plaque.
Gingivitis is a type of gum disease that is characterized by irritation, redness, and swelling (inflammation) in the gingiva, the part of the gum near the base of the teeth. It is a mild gum disease that is caused by the buildup of plaque on the teeth.
Periodontitis is a severe type of gum infection in which the inflammation causes the gums to pull away from teeth. The condition facilitates the creation of pockets filled with plaque, tartar, and bacteria between the gums and teeth.
According to researchers, having a gum disease such as gingivitis or periodontitis can increase the risk of developing heart disease.
How does gum disease affect heart health?
Various theories have been put forward by scientists to examine the connection between gum disease and poor heart health.
- It is believed that the bacteria that cause gum disease can travel throughout the body via blood vessels. Over time, the bacteria damage the blood vessels and heart valves by causing inflammation in them. This increases the risk of complications such as blood clots, stroke, endocarditis (inflammation of the inner lining of the heart), and heart attack.
- Certain studies have also found residue of oral bacteria in atherosclerotic blood vessels that are not even in the proximity of the mouth. This indicates that oral bacteria can contribute to the build of plaque (atherosclerosis) in the blood vessels, a major risk factor for heart disease and heart attack.
- Another theory states that an overactive immune response to a bacterial infection (such as gum disease) can also be a risk factor for poor heart health. An overactive immune response can trigger severe inflammation throughout the body. The inflammation can trigger a chain of vascular damage, including the heart and brain.
Dental care for people with cardiovascular conditions
People with any kind of cardiovascular condition should share their medical history and details of prescription or nonprescription drugs that they might be taking for their condition, with the dentist.
Some of the cardiovascular conditions that require specific dental care include:
Endocarditis is a medical condition in which an infection (mostly bacterial) causes inflammation in the inner lining of the heart. People who have endocarditis or those at risk of this condition need to take extra care of their oral hygiene. Such people may require antibiotic medication before any dental work. Patients who are scheduled to undergo heart valve surgery must consult their dentist to improve their oral hygiene. Excellent oral hygiene is an important prerequisite for surgery as unhealthy teeth are a major source of bacteria that can trigger endocarditis.
- Heart attack (myocardial infarction)
People who have experienced heart attack should ideally wait for at least six months before undergoing any major dental procedure. Simple procedures like dental cleaning can be done.
People who have experienced a stroke should inform their dentist if they are taking anticoagulants (blood-thinning medications). The medication can result in excessive bleeding during certain dental surgical procedures. The dentist may also recommend the use of artificial saliva for people who are unable to produce adequate amounts of saliva due to stroke.
- High blood pressure (hypertension)
Certain medications for high blood pressure (hypertension) can result in dry mouth or an altered sense of taste. This is particularly true for medications such as calcium channel blockers that trigger swelling or overgrowth in the gum tissue. The swelling can cause difficulty in chewing. Such people can benefit from frequent cleanings at dental clinics. Dentists can also recommend gingivectomy, a procedure that involves the removal of excess gum tissue with a scalpel, electrosurgery unit, or laser dental burs.
- Anticoagulants and antiplatelet medications
People who are taking anticoagulant or antiplatelet medications should consult their dentist and cardiologist before undergoing any dental or oral procedure. Such people should never stop taking their medication before consulting their healthcare provider.
How to prevent poor oral health?
Most of the complications associated with poor oral health can be prevented by following good oral hygiene practices. Certain changes to lifestyle and diet can also reduce the risk of poor oral health. Some of the measures that can help include:
- Always remember to brush teeth with fluoride toothpaste at least twice daily
- Rinse your mouth with a mouthwash
- If possible, floss teeth once daily
- Decrease intake of foods and beverages that are acidic or sugary
- Limit snacking in-between meals
- Quit smoking
- Limit consumption of alcohol
- Drink more water
- Increase consumption of vegetables and fruits
- Schedule professional dental care every six months.
Research indicates that oral hygiene affects more than just dental health. Poor oral hygiene does not only contribute to dental problems; it can also potentially increase the risk of heart issues. Therefore, it is essential to practice good oral hygiene daily. This is even more important for people with pre-existing heart health issues. Regularly following up with a dentist and cardiologist can help identify an underlying problem before it gets worse.
Talk to a cardiologist if you have any questions related to heart health. For teeth-related concerns, you can consult a dentist.