Sink your teeth into this: oral health is part of overall health

Did you know that there are more bacteria in your mouth right now than there are people on the planet? Scientists have calculated that there are about 20 billion microbes in your mouth at any one time! Most of these bacteria are harmless, but some can cause all kinds of problems, such as cavities and gum disease.

The mouth is the gateway to the body. That’s a fact! Much of what we consume comes through our mouth. Food, drink, water, drugs, bacteria, even air. And yet most of us don’t pay much attention to our oral health, and policymakers don’t focus on it very much either.

Tooth decay is preventable

Some of the bacteria in your mouth that break down foods also produce acid that destroys tooth enamel and results in tooth decay (also known as dental caries or cavities). So fewer of those bacteria in your mouth means less dental decay.

It also means that tooth decay is preventable. Moms and dads can transmit those bacteria to their children – especially in the early years of childhood – by sharing eating utensils and food, and by “cleaning” a pacifier by licking it and giving it back to a child, and that can result in cavities in the children’s mouths. But if parents and other caregivers have good dental care, there will be fewer of these bacteria transmitted, and tooth decay may be prevented in children.

Sadly, even though dental disease in children (also called childhood caries) is largely preventable, it is the most common chronic disease of children and adolescents in Maine.

Oral health is part of overall health

Oral health affects – and is affected by – the health of the whole body.  According to the U.S. Surgeon General, here are some ways oral health is part of our overall health and wellbeing:

  • Older adults. Dental problems are among the most common health problems that older adults have. These problems may affect diet by making chewing, tasting and swallowing difficult. Untreated dental decay can result in pain, as well as preventable tooth extractions and preventable trips to the emergency room.
  • Medications. Some prescription drugs and over-the-counter drugs have the side effect of dry mouth. Because saliva washes away food and neutralizes the acids produced by some bacteria in the mouth, having dry mouth can lead to tooth decay and other oral health problems.
  • Cardiovascular disease. Research shows that heart disease, clogged arteries and stroke might be linked to the inflammation and infections that bacteria in the mouth can cause.
  • Pregnancy and birth. Periodontitis (infection of the gums) has been linked to premature birth and low birth weight.
  • Diabetes. Not only are people with diabetes more susceptible to serious gum disease, but serious gum disease may have the potential to affect blood glucose control and contribute to the progression of diabetes.

Gateway to the social world

The mouth isn’t just the gateway to the body; it is the gateway to our social world as well. Poor oral health and stained or missing teeth can have an impact on a person’s quality of life and self esteem when it comes to communicating well, making friends, finding intimacy, and participating fully at school and work.

In future posts, I’ll talk about oral health during pregnancy, infancy and early childhood, and oral health among older adults. If you don’t want to wait, you can go to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and find out more for yourself.

Alison Webb

About Alison Webb

Alison Webb is a public health consultant with over 20 years experience in community outreach, grassroots organizing, implementing and evaluating evidence-based programs, and advocating for healthy policies at the Maine State Legislature. Alison is especially interested in what science tells us about promoting health and wellness and how we can apply that to live well in Maine. The blog describes recent public health research and give readers insights into how to use that knowledge to lead healthy lives.