In recent years, studies have revealed that good oral health is just as important to a person’s overall health as it is to healthy teeth.
Poor dental hygiene and tooth decay can lead to heart problems, bacterial infections and an early death. But there are things that can be done to catch and fix problems that could eventually lead to greater health problems.
The most important rule of thumb is to see a dentist at least once a year, said Matthew Messina, a Fairview Park, Ohio, dentist and the consumer advisor for the American Dental Association.
“One of the great things is that we’ve come to a place where people understand that anything going on in the mouth that is out of the ordinary can affect your overall health,” he said.
“The most important thing people can do is look at their mouths,” said Messina. “Look around while you’re brushing. Look at your tongue and your teeth and take notice of changes. People need to be their best advocates and realize that pain, swelling and redness are all ways that our body tells us that something is wrong.”
Here are three problems that could signal greater health problems:
— Bleeding gums. “If every time you brush or floss, your gums bleed, that’s a problem,” said Messina. Most commonly, bleeding gums is an early sign of periodontal disease, which can be easily corrected by a dentist.
“It might just mean you need to get your teeth cleaned,” Messina said. “But it also could indicate a loss of bone around the teeth, which could lead to tooth loss, or the presence of bacteria in the gums. The gums are a portal of entry for bacteria and the more irritated and inflamed your gums are, the easier it is for bacteria to enter the body. The more bacteria entering your bloodstream, the harder it is for your body to fight that bacteria.”
Messina said that bleeding gums are nothing to ignore. “If every time you washed your hands your fingernails bled, you would go right to the doctor,” he said. “People need to apply that to their dental health because we also know that the presence of bacteria in the mouth can be an indication of diabetes and other systemic diseases.”
— Pain, swelling, sores that last more than two weeks. Messina said pain and swelling along the gums, roof of the mouth, tongue and throat that may be caused by burns from hot food or from cold or canker sores usually disappears within two weeks. Anything longer could signal a greater problem, such as oral cancer.
“The oral cancer death rate is pretty high," said Messina. “That’s because the cancer is usually in the advanced stages by the time we find it, so early detection is the best cure for this disease.”
Messina recommended people see their dentist for any mouth pain that exists beyond two weeks and have sores removed and biopsied.
— Bad breath. While mouth odors can simply stem from a need to brush, floss or get a teeth-cleaning, it also can indicate medical problems such as acid reflux disease.
“Bad breath comes from a number of places and certain bacteria are more odorous than others,” said Messina. “But it also can come from the stomach. This should not be ignored because in addition to causing medical problems, acid reflux disease can also lead to the wearing and erosion of the teeth.”