It may seem like clean-looking, glistening white teeth are healthy teeth. But did know you could have wonderful looking teeth that are still unhealthy?
Skipping a dentist visit may seem like no big deal. We may think, “I don’t eat very much candy. I probably don’t have bad teeth.” But before you dismiss the importance of your dental health, you should know that tooth decay is the most common disease among people between 6 and 19 years old.
By the time we are adults, most of us have experienced tooth decay at some point in our lives.
So what does it mean to have "bad teeth" anyway, and what areas of your body can be affected by having them?
We’ve got your answers.
Here are some of the most common dental issues, as well as their symptoms, how they can affect the rest of your body, and how you can prevent them from happening.
What is Tooth Decay?
Also often referred to as having a cavity, tooth decay is the most common issue facing our mouths today. Tooth decay occurs through a process of your teeth being unprotected against dangerous elements, “dangerous” meaning they can wear down your enamel.
When bad bacteria sticks to and between your teeth, it can cause plaque build-up, which erodes your enamel, exposes the softer dentin layer underneath, and creates holes in the tooth. Tooth decay is literally your tooth being eaten away.
You may not realize that you have decay present in your teeth, because signs are not always painful or visible.
Cavities must be dealt with by your dentist immediately. If tooth decay is not drilled away and filled-in in a timely manner, all that bad bacteria can travel through the open channels of your dentin and enter the pulp of the tooth. At this stage, you are left with a much more painful and serious infection issue.
Health Issues Caused by Tooth Decay
Complications stemming from tooth decay can include the breaking or cracking of your teeth and tooth loss. If an abscess occurs, meaning that a pocket of pus has collected inside the tooth, the infection can spread to the bones that hold your teeth and into the entire body. In rare cases, the infection may move through the sinuses and into the brain, an infection which can be fatal.
Health Issues Caused by Gum Disease
Gum disease begins when plaque builds up in the mouth, much like a cavity. However, rather than sitting on the teeth, the build-up occurs on the gums. This can cause irritation and swelling in the affected area, and possibly lead to gingivitis. If gingivitis is left uncared for it may turn into periodontitis, a severe gum disease that can cause the gums to recede and lead to an abscess inside the gum opening.
According to Johns Hopkins Rheumatology, “bacterium known to cause chronic inflammatory gum infections also triggers the inflammatory autoimmune response also found in the joints of patients with the chronic, joint-destroying autoimmune disease, rheumatoid arthritis (RA).” In fact, people suffering from gum disease can be four times as likely to have RA.
The very same bacteria that builds up on gums can actually get into the bloodstream, inviting plaque into the arteries to harden and cause a blockage. This is a very serious condition called atherosclerosis and it makes the chances of having a heart attack greatly increase.
According to the Mayo Clinic, “Arteriosclerosis occurs when the blood vessels that carry oxygen and nutrients from your heart to the rest of your body (arteries) become thick and stiff — sometimes restricting blood flow to your organs and tissues. Healthy arteries are flexible and elastic, but over time, the walls in your arteries can harden, a condition commonly called hardening of the arteries.” This arterial damage can lead to hypertension and increase the risk of strokes.
In addition to risks to your arteries and heart, the effects of gum disease can include risks to your brain. In rare cases, matter released by infected gums can cause brain cells to die, resulting in memory loss. If gingivitis is able to escalate, bacteria that is able to spread through nerve channels may be able to cause dementia and possibly Alzheimer’s disease.
Complications During Pregnancy
You are likely now catching on to the fact that the effects of insufficient oral hygiene can be dangerous to not just your teeth, but your entire body. This is especially true for pregnant women. Due to hormonal changes during those precious nine months, pregnant women are more susceptible to infections in the gums. Additionally, infections in the mouth or anywhere else can increase the chances of pregnancy complications.
Scary but true, the presence of gingivitis or periodontitis has been linked to low birth weight and even premature birth in newborns.
Not only can the bacteria found in infected gums travel into the brain and affect the heart, it can also travel from the mouth and be breathed into the lungs or arrive via the bloodstream. In the same way that plaque and bacterial build-up can cause issues in the mouth, bacteria sitting inside the lungs can also lead to infections of the respiratory system, bronchitis, and pneumonia. In some cases, COPD (Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease) is a possible result.
Women who have experienced issues with infertility may want to consider dental health as a contributing factor. Gum disease can affect the body in many ways, as we have seen, and can make becoming pregnant more difficult, as well as sustaining a healthy pregnancy. A woman with poor oral health may have a harder time becoming pregnant than someone who does not have dental health concerns.
While women are at higher risk for irritation in the gums during hormonal shifts, men’s bodies can also be negatively affected by health issues stemming in the gums. Specifically, chronic gum disease can lead to erectile dysfunction in men.
If periodontitis causes the gums to recede and pull away from the teeth, an opportunity for bacteria literally opens, allowing the bacteria to deteriorate the bone supporting the teeth. This bacteria, if able to get into the bloodstream, can cause inflammation of the blood vessels. This inflammation can hinder blood flow to the genitals, which in turn makes it difficult to achieve or maintain an erection.
The practice of smoking and the use of tobacco are not the only oral practices that may lead to cancer. While the exact connection between diseases is unclear, there is evidence that a person with advanced periodontal disease may have a higher risk of cancers. Overall poor oral health can lead to blood cancers, pancreatic cancer, and kidney cancer.
Infections existing in the body, like periodontal disease for example, are able to lead to kidney disease. Kidney disease affects the heart, bones, kidneys, and blood with symptoms like weight loss, poor appetite, swollen extremities, fatigue, blood in urine, insomnia, muscle cramps, headaches, and shortness of breath. Those with poor oral health practices leading to gum disease often have weaker immune systems which make the development of infection a higher possibility. If severe enough, kidney disease can be fatal.
Diabetes and dental health issues can be a vicious cycle. That’s because diabetics are at high risk for developing infections in the gums, while having gum disease can exacerbate the symptoms of diabetes. Gum disease can increase blood sugar levels, and diabetics’ bodies are not able to process sugar efficiently, so those who do not keep up healthy oral routines are at increased risk for becoming diabetic.
Prevention of Oral Health Issues
These risks can be frightening to read through, but thankfully the best tools for prevention are both simple and effective. The best way to prevent oral health issues from causing other serious health issues is by implementing a good oral health ritual and by scheduling regular cleanings and visits with a dental professional.
Here are a few keys to keep your oral health in check:
Brush Your Teeth
Make sure to brush your teeth at least twice a day, for two minutes each time you brush. Use a safe and effective toothpaste every time you brush and avoid unnecessary ingredients like sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS), which can be damaging to your gums. You may also want to brush after consuming foods or beverages that could damage your enamel and create plaque build-up. Items like cakes, cookies, candy, juices, and sodas are major offenders.
Floss and Rinse
In addition to brushing, flossing can help prevent issues in the gums that could lead to serious health problems. Flossing is beneficial because floss is able to get into places that your toothbrush cannot go. Also, using a mouthwash when brushing can help loosen and wash away unwanted food particles while rinsing the surfaces of your teeth of bacteria.
Avoid Using Tobacco
For more reasons than just oral health, it is beneficial to discontinue use of all tobacco products, but prevention of gum disease and oral cancer are certainly ones to consider.
It is vital that the toothpaste you use each day contains fluoride. Fluoride binds to the teeth and protects them from mineral loss, enamel erosion, and cavities. Use a fluoride toothpaste every time you brush and talk to your dentist about possibly getting a fluoride treatment at your next cleaning.
Help keep your teeth, gums, and the rest of your body healthy by following these simple steps.
This page was written or reviewed for accuracy by the Twice Team. Learn more about us.