Beware of Hidden Contributors to Gum Disease, Tooth Loss

Posted on Aug 19, 2023 by William J. Claiborne, DDS MS

Decades ago, oral health was something many people took lightly, often waiting until something hurt to see a dentist. The fierce pain of a cavity or abscess or the sharp jolt of something hot or cold on an area of gum recession were motivators to for a dental visit.

However, Americans are now realizing how very important their oral health is in how it relates to overall health.

The correlation lies with bacteria that live within the gum tissues. While all mouths contain “good” and “bad” bacteria, research has determined that the bad type can cause problems within and outside of the mouth.

The bad bacteria are inflammatory. An accumulation of these inflammatory bacteria are what lead to periodontal (gum) disease. Gum disease is the nation’s leading cause of adult tooth loss. Additionally, advanced periodontal diseaseperiodontitis – can trigger or even worsen serious health condition far beyond the mouth.

Although gum disease can begin without any obvious symptoms, once it exists, progression occurs in three stages, which are:

• Gingivitis – As the initial stage of gum disease, inflammation is triggered by plaque buildup at the gum line. When daily brushing and flossing fail to thoroughly remove plaque, toxins form that cause irritation to the gum tissues. Once signs emerge, they may include seeing blood in the sink when brushing or having sore, swollen gums. At this stage, however, damage may be reversed with prompt response.

• Periodontitis – As the disease advances, the bone structures and fibers that support teeth are damaged by the destruction of infectious oral bacteria. At this stage, inflamed gums form pockets below the gum line, filling with bacteria-laden plaque.

• Advanced Periodontitis – In the advanced stage of gum disease, fibers and bone supporting natural teeth are destroyed. This can cause teeth to shift or loosen, requiring aggressive treatment to prevent tooth loss. Eventually, some teeth may require removal.

As devastating as tooth loss can be to one’s overall health, the bacteria of gum disease can enter the bloodstream. Research has shown this infectious bacteria can trigger inflammatory reactions elsewhere in the body, correlating to heart disease, stroke, high blood pressure, some cancers (including lung and pancreatic), diabetes, arthritis, impotency, preterm babies, Alzheimer’s disease and more.

Obviously, people should be highly-committed to the care of their oral health. Yet, statistics in America along these lines are not impressive. The Center for Disease Control’s Division of Oral Health cites that 1 out of every 2 American adults 30 and over has periodontal disease. They also shared that periodontal disease is higher in men than women (56.4% vs. 38.4%) with high prevalence rates among smokers (64.2%) and adults 65+ (70.1%).

In addition to your twice-a-year dental check-ups and cleanings, there are other ways to support oral wellness between visits. One is in keeping the mouth moist, supporting sufficient saliva flow.

When saliva flow is insufficient, bacteria are able to accumulate and multiply rapidly. In addition to oral dryness as a part of the aging process, contributors can be consuming alcoholic beverages, caffeine, and as a side effect of many medications (both OTC and Rx).

One reason to keep your dental professionals aware of ALL the medications your take is in how they can interact with certain procedures, including numbing agents. For example, medications to reduce blood clotting, which lowers your risk for stroke and heart disease, can cause bleeding problems during oral surgery or periodontal treatment.

For those who take medications that help to strengthen bones, these have been associated with a rare but serious condition called osteonecrosis of the jaw. Simply put, it refers to death of the bone. The risk of these prescriptions is greater for those administered by injection or intravenously.

Osteonecrosis of the jaw commonly occurs after dental procedures (tooth extraction, implant placement). Over 90% of those who have experienced osteonecrosis are those who have taken the medication in repeated high doses due to cancer or other diseases.

However, 10% who experienced osteonecrosis were taking much lower doses, mostly intended to treat osteoporosis.

Certain medications also affect the ability to taste, including cardiovascular agents, central nervous system stimulants, non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, respiratory inhalants and nicotine skin patches.

Some medications can also cause the development of oral sores, inflammation or discoloration of gum tissues in the mouth. These oral sores or discolorations may arise from taking medications for blood pressure, oral contraceptives and chemotherapy agents.

Dry mouth is a common side effect of a wide variety of medications, including prescriptive and over-the-counter. These include antihistamines, decongestants, painkillers, high blood pressure medications, muscle relaxants, drugs for urinary incontinence, anti-depressants and many others. Drying causes the soft tissues in the mouth to become inflamed and makes you more susceptible to infection. When saliva flow is depleted, your risk for tooth decay and gum disease increases.

Supplements that may seem unconnected to your oral health can actually effect your care more than you realize. It is important for your dentist to know if you take…

• Ginkgo biloba or evening primrose –  These herbs can reduce your blood’s ability to clot, possibly leading to excessive bleeding during and/or after a dental procedure.

• St. John’s Wort – This herb, which is often taken to reduce anxiety, can interfere with the metabolism of other medications, including sedatives, antibiotics and anti-inflammatory drugs such as prednisone and Decadron. When combined with St. John’s Wort, these drugs can be less effective. On the other hand, narcotics such as codeine, Vicodin and oxycodone can become more potent when taken with St. John’s Wort. This can lead to sleepiness, lethargy and dizziness.

• Valerian – This herb has mild sedative effects. If your dentist prescribes drugs for anxiety or painkillers containing codeine, the effects of both together are greatly accentuated. This can lead to severe sleepiness, lethargy and dizziness that can last into the next day.

• Calcium and magnesium – When these supplements are combined with certain antibiotics, they can decrease the antibiotics being properly absorbed. This can compromise your ability to fight off infection.

As a periodontal specialist, I find that most cases of dry mouth are due to factors that can be easily controlled with simple changes. If you have delayed or avoided dental care, call 828-274-9440 to request a consultation, or begin with a thorough examination in our Asheville periodontal office.

And, if you are experiencing signs of gum disease, please know this disease will only worsen without treatment. The sooner you have treatment, the less involvement your treatment will likely be.

We offer the latest techniques, technology, and skills while always making patient comfort a top priority. If dental fear or anxiety are concerns, please make us aware of this when you call or at your initial appointment. In addition to our standard comfort features, we offer Oral and I.V. sedation (“twilight sleep”).

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