It is well-known that there is a link between oral health and cardiovascular health. But there’s also another proven health link between oral health and pulmonary health. Specifically, between the health of the mouth and a patient’s risk of developing pneumonia. A 2016 study performed by the Infections Diseases Society of America suggests that visiting the dentist twice a year may prevent the occurrence of bacterial pneumonia infections by reducing bacteria in the mouth.
Pneumonia is an infection in the lung that inflames the alveoli, or the air sacs of the lungs. The alveoli are important to the lungs because that is where the gasses of breathing are exchanged; oxygen is converted to carbon dioxide. Pneumonia can cause one or both of the lungs to fill with fluid. This fluid blocks this important gas exchange and makes breathing difficult. Over 1 million Americans are diagnosed with pneumonia each year, of which roughly 50,000 of those diagnosed die. Pneumonia can affect patients of all ages but is more likely to be deadly in patients that are very young or very old, and in patients with chronic health conditions like lung disease or autoimmune disorders.
The study showed patients who never visited the dentist for routine check-ups had an 86 percent higher risk of contracting pneumonia than their counterparts who made the twice annual visit a priority. Patients that skip their regular checkups likely do not practice good oral hygiene habits at home and are at risk for bacterial infections.
Every mouth has bacteria – up to 650 different kinds of bacteria, as a matter of fact. These bacteria are both good and bad and live in the dental plaque film that covers the teeth. These bacteria are fed by sugars found food and drink. When food and drink particles are left behind, the bad bacteria grow rapidly. When illness causing bacteria flourish and take over, this is a dangerous situation, causing tooth decay and periodontal infections. Patients that visit the dentist have a reduction in the bacteria in the mouth, while those individuals who do not see a dentist can be overrun with harmful bacteria. When this bacteria become aerosolized or converted into particles that can be breathed in, the lungs can become infected. Some of the most commonly found mouth bacteria are also those that are known to cause pneumonia. These bacteria include Staphylococcus Aureus and strains of Streptococci. These bacteria can also cause bronchitis and aggravate lung conditions like chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder, also known as COPD.
Not only area these bacteria aerosolized, but they can also leak into the body via the blood stream. "Eventually, this blood is carried to the lungs and can cause pneumonia and bronchitis infection that way, as well," says Dr. James Erpenbach, D.D.S.
Erpenbach is a Knoxville, Tennessee, dentist providing preventative dental treatments and biomimetic dental options for his patients. He also is a dentist that happens to believe in the oral-systemic link and is a founding member of the American Academy for Oral-Systemic Health. The oral-systemic link is a theory in dentistry and medicine that connects oral health and total body health. Beyond the proven links between the cardiovascular and pulmonary systems, there are many connections between bad oral health and conditions like dementia, stroke, diabetes and even low birth weight in babies.
"While mouth bacteria cannot, and should not, be completely eradicated, reducing bad bacteria through proper oral hygiene practices is critical to protecting total health. This includes routine dental checkups," says Erpenbach. Dentists can identify periodontal infections and test to determine the specific bacteria causing the infection, too. "By identifying the bacteria, dentists can develop a proper method of treatment and protect their patient’s health."