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Kara Vavrosky, RDH is an Editorial Director at Modern Hygienist, a part of the Modern Dental Network. She is best known for running the popular Facebook page, Dental Hygiene with Kara RDH, and is the founder of DentalHygieneAnswers.com, a Q&A site for dental hygienists. Kara also serves on multiple advisory boards for dental-related companies and is a 2015-2016 ADHA Governance of Tomorrow Steering Committee member. You can learn more about Kara at KaraRDH.com.
Prevention is key for your overall health-and your pocketbook.
Before we discuss the health of your mouth, let me give you a scenario. Let’s say your primary care physician recommends eating healthy and exercising to lower your risk of heart disease. This will lower your blood pressure and cholesterol, lessening your risk of a heart attack. But instead, you ignore your doctor’s advice and wait until your first heart attack to take action on getting healthy. Beyond the health effects of having a heart attack, you have massive hospital and doctor bills. Obviously, prevention would have been cheaper, not to mention healthier, than to wait until you had a heart attack.
“Prevention is the best medicine” not only applies to your body, but also to your mouth. Why though? They are only teeth. I can always get dentures, you might think. Without going into detail of why dentures are just not the same as having real teeth, let’s focus on why a healthy mouth and preventing disease in your mouth promotes health to your entire body and is a money saver.
Using the example of high blood pressure and cholesterol, many times these can both be reversed with lifestyle changes such as exercise, a healthy diet, losing some weight and medication. However, once you have the more severe form of gum disease called periodontitis, which destroys tissue in your mouth like the bone holding in your teeth, it can only be halted and maintained. It’s not reversible like gingivitis, which is an infection of your gums. Not to downplay gingivitis though, as it can lead to periodontitis and is an infection in your mouth. Once you have periodontitis, your gums and bone simply don’t grow back. It’s not like the healing of your bone if you broke your arm or if you scraped the skin on your hand. This is why prevention of disease is extremely important when it comes to the health of your mouth.
Having a healthy mouth goes beyond “just keeping your teeth” or having “white teeth.” Gum disease is caused by bacteria. The disease-causing bacteria in your mouth, and the inflammation it leads to, can affect the rest of your body. Gum disease has been linked to increased risk of heart disease, including atherosclerosis (narrowing and hardening of arteries), Alzheimer’s/dementia, and lung, breast, pancreatic and oral/pharyngeal cancers. Disease and infection in your mouth also increases the risk for pneumonia, low testosterone, prostate disease, kidney disease and stroke. Even further, it increases the risk for low birth weight/preterm babies, trouble regulating blood sugar in diabetics and can increase the rate at which HIV replicates. The list of bodily diseases infection in your mouth can increase your risk of is already long; however, as more research emerges, the link between bodily diseases and gum disease will probably get substantially longer.
Still think a healthy mouth just means just keeping all your teeth in your head and having white teeth, all with no focus on the actual health of your mouth? Simply put, an infection in your mouth can lead to problems for the rest of your body. This is unhealthy and can lead to very expensive medical bills as a result.
You might think that once you have pain in your mouth, it’s time to address the issue. However, waiting until there is pain is being reactive, not proactive. Oftentimes gum disease and cavities won’t hurt in the beginning stages when they are best treated. Once the problem has progressed to the point of pain, it usually means the treatment needed is extensive and can be quite expensive. For example, a cavity doesn’t tend to hurt until it has decayed all the way to the nerve in the center of the tooth where nerves are located, which is why you can then feel it. A restoration, such as a filling, probably won’t take care of the problem at this point. You may need a root canal and a crown-if your tooth can be saved at all. You may not be able to see the decay when just looking in your mouth, which is why regular X-rays are crucial.
Gum disease tends to not hurt until it is quite severe as well. If you are diagnosed with periodontitis, you will need multiple appointments for non-surgical periodontal therapy, also known as a “deep cleaning.” Because the bacteria that causes tissue destruction is so virulent, you will then need to see your dental hygienist every 3 to 4 months to keep the bacteria from re-infecting your mouth causing more gum and bone destruction, which can lead to tooth loss. This is why prevention, with regular visits to the dental office and X-rays to detect problems early, is so important. It’s not only important for the health of your mouth, but for your overall health-not to mention pocketbook.
When it comes to the health of your body, including your mouth, waiting until you need to fix or restore the problem is unhealthy and not a financially sound plan. Simply put, prevention is cheaper than restoration. It may seem obvious, but your mouth is connected to the rest of your body. A healthy mouth is a healthy body. Treat your oral health as serious as you treat your overall health.