Healthy teeth and gums play a crucial role in the overall health of your body. Obviously, they help us break down food so our bodies can absorb essential vitamins and nutrients. But did you know oral health also plays an important part in the health of your lungs? Not only can oral problems exacerbate lung disease symptoms, but treatment for lung disease can also harm your teeth and gums. Learn more about the link between your mouth and lungs and what steps to take for optimal health.
The Link Between Lung Conditions and Your Oral Health
Bacterial infections cause oral health problems like cavities and gingivitis. It's not widely known, but you can breathe this bacteria into your lungs on tiny droplets of saliva. Healthy immune systems can help protect most people's lungs from these bacterial invasions. However, compromised immune systems and disease-damaged lungs may not be able to defend themselves. This puts you at risk for conditions like pneumonia or can make existing lung problems worse.
Periodontal disease can also worsen chronic inflammation in lung diseases such as asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). With these diseases, swelling in the airways contributes to more frequent symptoms and lung damage. The American Thoracic Society explains that when your gums are infected and inflamed, they send a signal to your immune system that places the whole body on alert. This can lead to more inflammation in the lungs, more symptoms, and potentially more lung damage.
Several recent studies show the link between gum disease and lung disease:
- A study published in the Journal of Periodontology found a clear connection between people with asthma and oral infections.
- Research conducted by the Journal of the COPD Foundation discovered that COPD patients with a higher plaque index — and therefore a potentially more extensive reservoir of pathogenic bacteria — experienced more frequent respiratory symptoms.
- Finally, a Medicine (Baltimore) study linked the benefits of COPD and dental treatment. The results showed that periodontal treatment could reduce the risk of adverse respiratory events and COPD patients' mortality.
The link between lung disease and oral health goes both ways. Treatment for some of the most common lung ailments — such as asthma, COPD, and sleep apnea— can affect your oral cavity. These medications and equipment can cause dry mouth where your mouth does not produce enough saliva. Saliva helps protect teeth from bacteria and makes you less vulnerable to cavities and gum disease.
Drugs used to treat lung diseases — such as inhaled medications — can also disrupt the normal balance of flora in your mouth, enabling candida yeast to grow and spread. This fungal infection is called thrush and causes white patches or red lesions to develop on the tongue, cheeks, and throat. These sores may or may not be painful and usually go away in a couple of weeks with anti-fungal medication.
Adverse effects of treatment medications combined with systemic inflammation and challenges in routine oral health care put adults with chronic respiratory conditions at higher risk for poor oral health. A study published by the Journal of the American Dental Association (JADA) found that participants with asthma or COPD had higher odds of tooth loss than those with neither asthma nor COPD.
Maintaining your lung health provides just another incentive for taking care of your teeth and gums. If you're looking to boost your oral hygiene, start with these tips for optimal oral health.
- Brush your teeth at least twice a day for two minutes each time.
- Clean in between your teeth daily with interproximal brushes, floss, or a water flosser.
- Schedule regular dental exams and dental hygiene appointments.
When you speak to your dentist or dental hygienist, let them know about your medical history — such as lung disease and treatments — even if it feels unrelated. They will be able to educate you on asthma, pneumonia, or COPD and their dental implications. Come prepared to ask questions like:
- How often should you visit the office for exams or treatments based on your lung and oral health?
- How can you treat the adverse effects of your medications such as dry mouth or thrush?
- Could you benefit from additional care such as fluoride supplements or antibacterial rinses?
- How can you make appointments more comfortable — whether that's adjusting the chair for easier breathing or using hand signals when you need to cough?
Taking extra care of your mouth is essential when avoiding lung problems. Regular visits with both your dentist and primary care physician will ensure that you can manage issues if they occur. Knowing the connection will keep you, your lungs, and your mouth healthier and happier at the end of the day.
This article is intended to promote understanding of and knowledge about general oral health topics. It is not intended to be a substitute for professional advice, diagnosis or treatment. Always seek the advice of your dentist or other qualified healthcare provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition or treatment.