You can’t see them, feel them or taste them, but your mouth is home to entire colonies of microorganisms. While most of these tiny oral bacteria do us no harm, there are other species in the mix that are disease causing and can affect our health and need to be controlled with a healthy diet, good oral care practices and regular visits to your dentist.
Over 700 different strains of bacteria have been detected in the human mouth, though most people are only host to 34 to 72 different varieties. Most of these bacterial species appear to be harmless when it comes to our health. Others, known as probiotics, are beneficial bacteria that aid in the digestion of foods. Other bacteria actually protect our teeth and gums. There are some bacteria, however, that we’d rather do without, since they cause tooth decay and gum disease.
The Two Most Common Harmful Bacteria
Streptococcus mutans is the bacteria you’ve probably heard the most about. It lives in your mouth and feeds on the sugars and starches that you eat. That alone wouldn’t be so bad, but as a by-product of its ravenous appetite, it produces enamel-eroding acids, which make streptococcus mutans the main cause of tooth decay in humans.
Porphyromonas gingivalis is usually not present in a healthy mouth, but when it does appear, it has been strongly linked to periodontitis. Periodontitis is a serious and progressive disease that affects the tissues and the alveolar bone that support the teeth. It is not a disease to be taken lightly. It can cause significant dental pain, and can eventually lead to tooth loss.
Once you’ve got a strain of oral bacteria, you’re not likely to rid yourself of it. The good news is that you can manage and control the bacteria in your mouth with good oral care. Brushing after meals and flossing at least once per day can remove the source of food for harmful bacteria, which can keep them from reproducing in your mouth. Antibacterial mouthwash can also be used to keep your oral flora from taking over. Your diet also plays a role in managing bacteria. Avoiding sugary and starchy foods, especially when you don’t have access to a toothbrush, helps constrain bacterial growth. Also, eating foods that are known to promote healthy bacteria will help you keep your teeth and mouth healthy for a lifetime.
Common Mouth Bacteria
- Streptococcus salivarius
- Streptococcus sanguinis
- Porphyromonas gingivalis
- Streptococcus mitis
A bacterium that builds up on teeth makes gums prone to infection. Over time, inflammation and the chemicals it releases eat away at the gums and bone structure that hold teeth in place. The result is severe gum disease, known as periodontitis. Poor oral health can lead to digestive issues. More worryingly, bad bacteria present in your saliva travels to your digestive tract when you swallow. This can cause an imbalance in your digestive system and subsequently digestive problems that can cause problems in the rest of your body.
Poor oral health can lead to digestive issues
Digestive problems can take many forms ranging from acid reflux to constipation irritable bowel syndrome. Common causes of digestive issues include not chewing food thoroughly and eating too quickly. That means the condition of your teeth and gums can have an impact on your digestive health.
The mouth plays an integral role in the digestive process as it’s where physical and chemical digestive processes begin. That means the condition of your teeth and gums can have an impact on your digestive health. It’s also interesting to note that gastrointestinal disorders can similarly affect your oral health.
Healthy teeth and gums help us to chew food properly, which leads to good digestion. Misalignment (very skew teeth), infection and missing teeth are some dental problems that affect our ability to chew food, with possible digestive issues down the line.
How gastrointestinal disorders can affect your teeth and gums
Given that the mouth is the start of our digestive tract, gastrointestinal disorders can contribute to problems in our teeth and gums. Here’s how 3 gastrointestinal disorders can have a negative effect on oral health.
Gastroesophageal reflux disease (Heartburn)
Commonly known as heartburn, gastroesophageal reflux disease causes people to experience a burning feeling in their chest or a bad taste in their mouth. Heartburn causes acids from the stomach to enter the oral cavity and these acids can erode tooth enamel. This is because acids from the stomach are more alkaline than dental enamel. Stomach acid has the potential to cause significant chemical erosion.
To counteract heartburn, some people often use antacids and bismuth products which can lead to a harmless and temporary condition called the black hairy tongue. Black hairy tongue gives the tongue on a dark furry appearance. Good oral hygiene and stopping the consumption of antacids and bismuth can reverse this condition.
If you suffer from gastroesophageal reflux disease, let your dentist know. He or she may prescribe an oral rinse or recommend fluoride treatments in order to strengthen your teeth.
Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD)
IBD which includes Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis, is defined as “chronic inflammation of the gastrointestinal tract.” IBD can manifest itself in the oral cavity, particularly in paediatric cases. Some oral signs and symptoms of IBD include mouth sores and infections or bleeding or swollen gums.
Prescriptions for IBD can also affect your dental health some common medication for Crohn’s disease can cause dry mouth, gingivitis and tongue inflammation.
If you have IBD, let your dentist know and also disclose what medications you are taking. It is important so your dentist can take your medical condition into account when administering dental care. This may include measures such as monitoring your blood pressure and glucose levels, plus extra considerations when invasive dental procedures are indicated.
It is sores that develop in the lining of the stomach, lower oesophagus, or small intestine. If you’re suffering from peptic ulcers, it’s important to note that some of the medications used to treat the condition have side effects that can adversely affect your dental health. You may experience dry mouth, black tongue or a change in taste during the course of treatment.
In such cases, it’s important to inform your dentist about your prescriptions so that he or she can adjust your dental treatment as well as provide tailored advice on how to deal with those side effects. Be sure to also mention any over-the-counter medication that you take as certain drug interactions may worsen the side effects.
An infected tooth can result in the spread of infection to nearby parts of the body such as the jaw, neck, sinuses, and even the brain. Good oral and dental hygiene can help prevent bad breath, tooth decay and gum disease and can help you keep your teeth as you get older. An unhealthy mouth, especially if you have gum disease, may increase your risk of serious health problems such as heart attack, stroke, poorly controlled diabetes and preterm labor.
How does it work?
Though your saliva helps protect you against some invaders, it can’t always do the job. More than 500 species of bacteria thrive in your mouth at any given time. These bacteria constantly form dental plaque a sticky, colourless film that can cling to your teeth and cause health problems.
Your mouth as infection source!!
If you don’t brush and floss regularly to keep your teeth clean, plaque can build up along your gum line, creating an environment for additional bacteria to accumulate in the space between your gums and your teeth. This gum infection is known as gingivitis. Left unchecked, gingivitis can lead to a more serious gum infection called periodontitis. The most severe form of gum infection is called acute necrotizing ulcerative gingivitis, also known as trench mouth.
Bacteria from your mouth normally don’t enter your bloodstream. However, invasive dental treatments sometimes even just routine brushing and flossing if you have gum disease — can provide a port of entry for these microbes. Medications or treatments that reduce saliva flow and antibiotics that disrupt the normal balance of bacteria in your mouth can also compromise your mouth’s normal defences, allowing these bacteria to enter your bloodstream.
If you have a healthy immune system, the presence of oral bacteria in your bloodstream causes no problems. Your immune system quickly dispenses with them, preventing infection. However, if your immune system is weakened, for example because of a disease or cancer treatment, oral bacteria in your bloodstream (bacteraemia) may cause you to develop an infection in another part of your body. Infective endocarditis, in which oral bacteria enter your bloodstream and stick to the lining of diseased heart valves, is an example of this phenomenon.
- Poorly controlled diabetes. If you have diabetes, you’re already at increased risk of developing gum disease. But chronic gum disease may, in fact, make diabetes more difficult to control, as well. Infection may cause insulin resistance, which disrupts blood sugar control.
- Cardiovascular disease. Oral inflammation due to bacteria (gingivitis) may also play a role in clogged arteries and blood clots. It appears that bacteria in the mouth may cause inflammation throughout the body, including the arteries. This inflammation may serve as a base for development of atherosclerotic plaques in the arteries, possibly increasing your risk of a heart attack or stroke. Some research suggests that people with gum infections are also at increased risk of heart attack and stroke. The more severe the infection, the greater the risk appears to be. And gum disease and tooth loss may contribute to plaques in the carotid artery. In one study, 46 percent of participants who’d lost up to nine teeth had carotid artery plaque; among those who’d lost 10 or more teeth, 60 percent of them had such plaque.
- Preterm birth. Severe gum disease may increase the risk of preterm delivery and giving birth to a low birth weight baby. The theory is that oral bacteria release toxins, which reach the placenta through the mother’s bloodstream and interfere with the growth and development of the fetus. At the same time, the oral infection causes the mother to produce labour-triggering substances too quickly, potentially triggering premature labour and birth.
5 Tips to Keep Your Oral Flora and Good Mouth Bacteria in Balance
- Add more fibre to your diet, including prebiotic.
- Eat probiotic fermented foods.
- Brush and floss your teeth daily.
- If your gums bleed, book a dental appointment right away.
- Take an oral probiotic.
Info from the Practice of Dr Emayne en Marais in Pretoria, South Africa.
Pierre van Niekerk ©