Written by: Sarah Tevis Poteet, DDS (Dallas County Dental Society Member)
Oral infections are a medical problem with a dental solution, and dentists and dental hygienists are in a unique position to help patients in numerous ways that can impact their entire health and well-being and improve quality of life. We are moving past the “drill and fill” mentality to early screening of health issues and ways to prevent and decrease chronic systemic diseases. The medical community needs our expertise to help manage their patients, as people often see their dentist more frequently than their physicians. We are in a prime position to screen and help manage high blood pressure, diabetes, airway disorders, sleep disordered breathing, cognitive changes, nutritional deficiencies, cardiovascular disease, cancers, speech development and numerous other issues.
Periodontal disease, which is oral dysbiosis along with a hyperactive immune response and tissue destruction, increases the risk for cardiovascular disease, rheumatoid arthritis, diabetes, cancers and inflammatory bowel disease. You can have a healthy mouth and get sick with the flu or a cold, for example, but you cannot have disease and infection in the mouth and have a healthy body. Many in the health community talk about a “leaky gut” wreaking havoc on the body. The mouth can be “leaky” as well because it is a permeable, vascular super-highway to the rest of the body.
The microbes in the mouth and the gut overlap by 45%. Pathogens from the mouth have been found in atherosclerotic plaques in arteries, the brains of Alzheimer’s patients and in joints of rheumatoid arthritis patients. Simple interventions to reduce the bacterial load in the mouth can reduce cardiovascular events and lower inflammatory markers such as C-reactive protein (CRP). Periodontal disease affects nearly 50% of people over the age of 30 in the United States and 1 in 3 people have untreated tooth decay. Diabetics are three times more likely to develop periodontal disease than their non-diabetic counterparts. A dental visit can often discover early diabetes or vitamin deficiencies just by the appearance of the gums and easy bleeding before the patient or physician are aware of problems.
We now have technology to test the saliva for many health problems. We can culture the saliva in the mouth to know how to customize protocols to decrease harmful bacteria, viruses, and yeast. We can test for HPV strains in the saliva to know if someone is at increased risk for oral cancer. Oral health improvement often involves more than just brushing and flossing better. The environment of the mouth and the host immune response of the body must be modulated to be more resistant to disease. This can be done with oral probiotics, antibiotics, anti-bacterial and anti-viral products, diet, nutrition, avoiding foods and products that cause inflammation in the patient, identifying vitamin deficiencies and helping with airway and breathing issues.
Dental health professionals are key members of the health care team which requires collaboration and communication among health care providers. The mouth is a key player in systemic health, and we should embrace it as a part of a comprehensive healing and overall wellness. It is an exciting time to be a dentist!