Oral health: An indicator of your overall health

May 2020

Oral Health - Mobile

Preventive dental care is the key to keeping your pearly whites healthy throughout the course of your life. But it goes beyond that: Good oral health affects your overall state of health.


Like other parts of the body, your mouth teems with (mostly harmless) bacteria. Since your mouth is the entry point to your digestive and respiratory tracts, some of these bacteria can however enter the bloodstream and cause potentially serious health issues.

According to Pretoria dentist Dr Reynhard P. van Eeden, these health issues include the following:

  • Endocarditis. This infection of the inner lining of your heart chambers or valves occurs when bacteria or other germs from other parts of your body such as your mouth spread through the bloodstream and attach to certain areas in your heart.
  • Cardiovascular disease. Some research suggests that heart disease, clogged arteries and stroke might be linked to the inflammation and infections that oral bacteria can cause.
  • Pregnancy and birth complications. Periodontitis has been linked to premature birth and low birth weight.
  • Pneumonia. Bacteria in your mouth can find their way into your lungs, causing pneumonia and other respiratory diseases.

Other conditions that might be linked to poor oral health include eating disorders, rheumatoid arthritis, certain cancers and an immune system disorder called Sjögren’s syndrome that causes a dry mouth and eyes.

Certain conditions might in turn also affect your oral health, including:

  • Diabetes mellitus. Gum disease appears to be more frequent and severe among people with diabetes. Those with gum disease may struggle to control their blood sugar levels. Effective periodontal care can improve diabetes control.
  • Osteoporosis. This bone-weakening disease is linked to periodontal bone loss and subsequent tooth loss.
  • Alzheimer disease. Worsening oral health is seen as Alzheimer disease progresses.

Van Eeden stresses that it is important to tell your dentist about the medication you take and about changes in your overall health, especially if you’ve recently been ill or you have a chronic condition, such as diabetes.

Benefits of preventive dentistry

  • It lowers your risk for developing tooth decay, gum disease, and more serious dental problems that might require expensive treatment, like root canal treatment and dental crowns, resulting in numerous visits to the dentist.
  • It promotes good oral hygiene habits.
  • Early identification of dental problems may help minimise treatment costs.
  • It helps reduce dental problems related to some chronic medical conditions. For people with chronic conditions, regular preventive dental care is essential.

Beyond the brush

Besides brushing your teeth at least twice a day, follow these easy preventive dental care steps:

  • Clean your tongue. This may help to remove bacterial build-up that contributes to bad breath.
  • Floss daily to remove food that is stuck between your teeth and use a mouthwash to rinse out food particles after flossing.
  • Avoid excessive consumption of acidic foods such as citrus or wine that can harm tooth enamel, and be cautious when eating hard foods such as candies and foods with seeds, bones or pips that can chip your teeth.
  • Take oral probiotics. Increase the presence of beneficial bacteria in the mouth by taking supplemental oral probiotics such as those found in yogurt and other fermented foods to help combat bad breath and gum disease.
  • Use a mouthguard when participating in sport. Ask your dentist for a night-time mouthguard if you grind your teeth in your sleep (bruxism). This will help reduce teeth wearing down.

Dental myths debunked

  • Brushing harder cleans better – It’s not true that brushing your teeth hard will make them cleaner. In fact, hard brushing can cause bleeding and damage to your teeth and gums. This leads to gum recession and your teeth can become intensely sensitive to cold.
  • Take aspirin for toothache – Aspirin is often used for the treatment of pain and inflammation, including toothache. However, as with all medicines, there are risks associated with taking aspirin. Aspirin can trigger bleeding more easily and increase the risk of developing severe and sometimes fatal stomach or bowel problems like ulcers. The risk is greater in the elderly and in people who have had stomach or bowel ulcers or bleeding before. Aspirin should also not be taken by pregnant women. Always consult a doctor or pharmacist before taking any medicine.
  • Bad teeth and gums are inherited – The spacing, alignment and size of teeth and the size of the jaw are all inherited, but bad teeth, poor gums or the propensity to lose teeth are not part of your lineage; instead, this is directly related to how well you take care of your oral health daily.
  • The quicker you brush after a meal, the better – Never brush immediately after eating, as you could damage the tooth enamel because your teeth will be weaker due to the change in the pH level in your mouth. It’s best not to brush your teeth until at least one hour after eating.
  • Use charcoal toothpaste – The most important ingredient in toothpaste is fluoride, which is crucial to prevent tooth decay. Many toothpastes with charcoal don’t contain enough fluoride, so be careful what you use.

Even if you aren’t experiencing any dental problems, it is recommended that you visit a dentist twice a year, says Dr Briers Uys, a Medihelp member and dentist in Edenvale. Some dental issues are asymptomatic but can still cause infection and need treatment. “If you wait too long, the treatment you need may be more extensive and expensive. The chances of saving an affected tooth are also reduced.”

Oral Health - Tablet