When it comes to oral health, people usually think of it as a separate entity from the rest of the body, yet the two are connected. Studies show that there’s a relationship between oral health and systemic disease. In fact, some medical or health conditions directly impact the health of your teeth and gums by making your mouth more vulnerable to bacterial attack and causing tooth decay, among other oral problems.
Relationship between oral health and systemic disease
In some cases, it is the systemic disease that affects your oral health, and in others, it is the medication or treatment administered that increases your vulnerability. From diabetes to cancer treatments, these illnesses or treatments can erode tooth enamel, cause a dry mouth and bad breath, or even turn your tongue black.
According to Kapila (2021), research has shown that there exists a connection between periodontal (gum) disease and diabetes, obesity, liver disease, metabolic syndrome, eating disorders, cardiovascular disease, rheumatoid arthritis, cancer, and even adverse pregnancy outcomes.
Studies have also shown that the association between the two is influenced by:
- Environmental factors – such as stress and lifestyle habits (smoking, consuming high-fat or processed foods)
- Genetic factors
- Altered immune response
It is these factors that are said to trigger and initiate gum disease and systemic conditions.
Research further suggests that periodontitis may affect a person’s susceptibility to systemic diseases in the following ways:
- The gum tissues harboring inflammatory elements
- Pockets underneath the gum tissues that allow bacteria to accumulate
- Risk factors discussed above.
You will need to be more conscious of your dental health if you have the following medical conditions:
Medical conditions that cause tooth decay
High blood pressure
An estimated 25 percent of the American population suffers from this dangerous condition. Although it is treatable, the medications used have a number of side effects, including gingival enlargement – a condition characterized by inflammation of gums causing them to grow over your teeth.
People with diabetes tend to have high levels of sugar in saliva, as well as reduced saliva flow, which facilitates the growth of bacteria in the mouth. This puts them at higher risk of infections in the mouth from not only bacteria, but also yeast, fungi, and viruses. So, these people have a higher risk of severe tooth decay, gum disease, and tooth loss. Conversely, people with uncontrolled gum disease can have difficulty controlling diabetes.
Chronic kidney disease
Kidney disease is a serious condition that can be fatal if left untreated. It is usually characterized by breath that smells like ammonia or fish. As your condition worsens and the kidneys are unable to filter toxins and waste from your blood, your breath will start smelling like urine.
Also known as gastroesophageal reflux disease, acid reflux can be diagnosed by your dentist during a normal check-up, since it causes erosion on your back teeth due to powerful acid in your stomach dissolving the enamel. You can protect your teeth by gurgling water in your mouth after every reflux episode. Also avoid taking meals 2-3 hours before bed, and stay away from triggers like caffeine, alcohol, and acidic items.
Ulcers are usually caused by the bacterium H. pylori, which weaken the protective lining of your stomach and intestine, resulting in sores. Ulcers themselves do not affect your oral health; but the medication used can turn your tongue black. Fortunately, this side effect fades away once you stop taking the treatment.
Hyper and hypothyroidism are known to increase the risk of tooth decay and periodontal disease. The thyroid gland produces a hormone known as thyroxine that’s responsible for controlling metabolism. When it’s level of activity begins to fluctuate – higher or lower – it can influence the body’s systemic response to microorganisms, which presents itself in gum inflammation and rapidly progressing tooth decay. Hence these symptoms are often associated with an overactive or underactive thyroid.
Anorexia and Bulimia, which are the two most common eating disorders, not only affect your general health, but also lead to a number of oral health issues.
- For starters, if you don’t get enough nutrition, it directly denies your body of essential vitamins and minerals necessary to support healthy gums and teeth.
- As you get malnourished, sores and ulcers may begin to form in the mouth.
- Since bulimia causes frequent vomiting, your teeth are exposed to corrosive stomach acids, which can harm enamel. Cavities develop more easily as enamel erodes, and decay advances more swiftly than in healthy mouths.
Additionally, there are some eating disorders that can have particularly harmful effects on the mouth. For instance, snacking regularly means that there will be more food traveling through the mouth, resulting in more plaque and tartar forming on the teeth, overeating, or obsessive eating, which may all lead to cavities.
Bruxism (teeth grinding)
Although this is not a medical condition, teeth grinding and jaw clenching can cause fractured teeth and worn-down enamel. The bacteria responsible for cavities can enter the body through this kind of structural damage to enamel. Keep in mind that bruxism can occur even in the absence of temporomandibular joint (TMJ) disease, though it is commonly a sign of this condition. So night if you think you clench or grind your teeth while you sleep, you should visit your dentist for a custom-made mouth guard to stop this harmful habit.
Hormonal changes in women – pregnancy and menopause
Many women usually become more vulnerable to gum disease during pregnancy, and later on during menopause. The hormonal changes associated with these stages in a woman’s life tend to affect the chemistry of the mouth and saliva pH.
- During pregnancy, gum inflammation and sensitivity can prevent you from brushing and flossing properly, allowing plaque to build up and cause cavities and gum disease. Additionally, vomiting frequently due to morning sickness increases the risk of acid erosion of tooth enamel, which further puts you at risk of cavities.
- During menopause, the reduced estrogen levels often lead to dry mouth, which reduces your ability to wash away food debris and bacteria in the mouth, resulting in plaque buildup and ultimately gum disease and tooth cavities.
Although gum disease initially may not cause cavities, as it progresses, gum tissue recedes from the teeth. When this happens, roots become exposed and become suddenly very vulnerable to decay, as they are not covered with protective enamel.
There are many more conditions to watch out for, including:
- HIV/AIDS – the virus increases the risk for gum disease, dental caries, and mouth infections (sores, blisters, oral warts, and yeast infections)
- Anemia – insufficient oxygen in the gums leading to gum disease
- Sjogren’s syndrome – dry mouth
- Cancer treatment – known to cause sores, bleeding, and fungal/viral/bacterial infections
Take charge of your health
If you are suffering from any of these conditions, work closely with your dental care providers to come up with a good oral care plan to keep your mouth healthy. This includes brushing and flossing regularly, rinsing your mouth with clean water after meals, using a mouth rinse, and visiting your dentist regularly for professional cleaning and examination.