Can taking care of your teeth and gums help you avoid pneumonia and other breathing problems? There is a good chance that the answer is yes.
Respiratory infections can be caused by bacteria or viruses. This article will be most concerned with the bacterial aspect.
There are several theories as to how bacteria reach your lungs. The most accepted is that you inhale fine droplets that contain throat and mouth germs. These germs breed and multiply within your lungs, causing infections or making existing breathing problems worse. Pre-existing breathing problems make it more difficult to eliminate bacteria from your lungs because your natural protective systems are compromised. Other theories suggest that your oral bacteria put out enzymes that cause changes in your mouth cells and make it easier for the bacteria to stick to those cells. If you have poor oral hygiene, more bacteria are present in your mouth, and the likelihood of infection increases.
If you have gum disease, you also have a higher concentration of bacteria in your mouth. Bacteria is present in plaque, tartar/calculus, and in the pockets between your teeth and gums. Even medical doctors are starting to recognize that gum disease increases the risk of respiratory problems, particularly pneumonia and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).
Pneumonia results from bacterial infections that cause inflammation of your lungs. Health professionals divide pneumonia into two major types: community acquired and hospital acquired. Community acquired pneumonia develops from exposure within your day to day activities. Sometimes your physician can treat it as an out patient and sometimes it requires hospitalization.
Hospital acquired pneumonia is a secondary infection that you pick up while in the hospital or another institution while under treatment for another condition. The environment of a nursing home, inpatient rehabilitation center, hospital or similar institutional setting means you have a higher chance of being exposed to disease causing agents. If your general health is poor, you may have a tougher time fighting off infection. Consider too that in these environments, your oral hygiene routine may change. You may not be able to brush and floss your own teeth and have to rely on someone else to do it for you. If you wear a removable dental appliance (such as a denture, partial, or retainer), you may have other people handling and cleaning the appliance for you.
So what can you do to protect yourself? First eliminate gum disease. Remember that gum disease is a silent disease. You will not have pain or discomfort until the problem is quite advanced and severe. It is important to recognize early signs of the disease process and take steps to treat it even though there is no pain. Some of these early signs are: gums that bleed when you brush or floss, gums that look puffy or swollen, gums that feel tender when you brush or floss, and persistent bad breath.
If you think you have gum disease, see your dentist. She or he will confirm the disease is present and may recommend a special type of professional cleaning, called a deep cleaning, to help remove plaque and tartar/calculus that contain bacteria. Continued vigilance both at home and with regular dental appointments should keep the number of oral bacteria as low as possible and decrease your risk of developing breathing problems.
If you know in advance that you will have a medical condition that will limit or prevent you from performing your own oral care, try to find a family member or friend who is willing to help you with it. Paid staff try their best, but are often overburdened in today’s healthcare environments. They may not be available to assist you with your oral care as often as you would like. (If you have a loved one who might be in this boat, consider offering your assistance to him or her.)
Studies have shown that treatments which reduce or inhibit dental plaque also reduce the risk of pneumonia. If you feel you have a high risk for getting pneumonia, consider talking to your dentist. She or he might decide that a prescription mouthrinse or topical antibiotics would help reduce your risk.
Working with your dentist and your toothbrush can help prevent more than just a cavity. It can also reduce the risk of serious disease.
*Note: The information in this article is not meant to replace the clinical judgement of your healthcare professionals.