When you think of your immune system, what may come to mind first is how the network of cells and proteins defends the body against the common cold or flus. What’s less known, but equally as important, says one dentist, are the connections between oral health, the immune system and overall health.
“Everything, whether you put good or bad into the system, goes in through the mouth,” says dentist Mark McCullough of Capital Dentistry. “So, dentists certainly pick up many key signs in the mouth of overall health. With COVID-19, people are more focused on their health and want to stay healthy to make sure their immune system is strong.”
Bacteria — the basis of it all
Appointments with your dentist and dental hygienist for cleanings can actually strengthen your immune system. That’s because, when unchecked, gingivitis (inflammation of the gums), which commonly occurs because a film of plaque, or bacteria, accumulates on the teeth, can turn into periodontitis. The severe gum infection can lead to tooth loss and other serious health complications.
When periodontitis occurs, your immune system steps up to attack the bacteria causing the inflammation and must ignore other parts of the body — effectively weakening its response to other infections or inflammation.
“Bacteria forms around our first tooth and usually there is a population from the initial bacteria that live in our mouth symbiotically, which means our body doesn’t fight it,” says Dr. McCullough. “So, if someone has periodontitis and the bacteria gets into the blood stream and travels around the body, your body sees it as friend, not foe. This can lead to cardiovascular issues and worse systemic problems. Getting regular cleanings can prevent gingivitis from turning into periodontitis.”
Dentist visits are about much more than just checking for cavities or gum disease. They can help identify common health concerns. Note: This photo was taken pre-covid and does not reflect current safety requirements.
Immune response in pregnant women
While bacteria can create issues that extend well past the mouth, for pregnant women it can be especially concerning. The theory is that if oral bacteria release toxins that enter the bloodstream and reach the placenta, they can interfere with the fetus’ growth and development. Simultaneously, oral infections can cause mothers to produce labour-triggering substances too quickly, potentially triggering premature labour and birth. In fact, in the U.S., the National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research reports that as many as 18 per cent of preterm, low-weight births may be attributed to oral infections.
“Some pregnant women have swollen or sore gums, and we want to ensure they maintain good habits despite that to prevent any issues with gingivitis, so we encourage using ultra-soft tooth brushes and rinsing with salt water to help with inflammation,” says McCullough.
Discovering common conditions
Dentist visits are actually about much more than just checking for cavities or gum disease. They can help identify common health concerns. During exams, says McCullough, dentists examine soft tissue for lesions, warts and other potential oral conditions. They also check the palate, throat, tonsils and lymph nodes in addition to the teeth.
“When we’re doing the exams, we’ll often ask certain questions about pain or habits if, for example, we see signs of loss of enamel, which may be a sign of other health conditions,” he says.
Two of the surprising conditions that dentists can discover during an oral exam are acid reflux and poor nutrition. Dentists may identify both by, for example, a loss of enamel due to erosion. McCullough says if the erosion is on the inside of the teeth, a dentist can tell it is from acid coming up. If it is on the outside of the teeth, it is from acid coming in — possibly from excessive pop drinking or drug use.
“With loss of tooth structure, teeth become more prone to cavities and decay, which can lead to gingivitis and, again, impact the immune system,” he says. “You want to get that under control and identifying it is an important first step.”
Signs of serious health issues
Dentists’ role in overall health also involves the ability to identify more serious conditions such as cancer and diabetes. While cancer may appear as tumours or lesions that aren’t healing or open sores that have no real cause, diabetes may present as gradual bone loss and inflamed tissue from reduced blood flow.
“Usually, you need to go to the dentist twice a year,” says McCullough. “During one of those visits you see your dentist, but hygienists are also trained to screen and identify issues when they clean your teeth, so there are two lines of defence. If something seems out of the ordinary between visits, pick yourself up and get it checked. It’s easier to fix small problems rather than waiting for them to become bigger.”