The human mouth is home to billions of bacteria.
And if you haven’t brushed your teeth recently, you may have more bacteria living in your mouth than there are people living on Earth.
“The mouth is pretty much the gateway to the body, and it’s full of bacteria,” said Al Watanabe, a dentist at Gentech Dentist in Salmon Creek.
Normal body defenses and daily brushing and flossing keep the bacteria under control, Watanabe said. In addition, most of the bacteria in the mouth is harmless, he said.
But when people aren’t maintaining their oral hygiene, they open themselves up to tissue and gum infections, tooth decay and abscesses, and even life-threatening infections, Watanabe said.
The culprit is plaque: the sticky, colorless film of bacteria on teeth.
Plaque is constantly building up, hardening and thickening on teeth. If the plaque is not removed by daily brushing and flossing, it can contribute to gum infections and tooth decay, Watanabe said.
The bacteria in the plaque can then travel through the bloodstream and cause problems elsewhere in the body, he said.
“Poor oral health can contribute to other diseases and conditions,” Watanabe said.
Having “good oral health” essentially means having healthy gums and teeth, said Melody Scheer, program coordinator at Clark County Public Health and a dental hygienist.
Oral health also means being free of chronic oral and facial pain, oral and throat cancers, oral soft tissue lesions and other diseases affecting the oral and dental tissues, according to the U.S. Surgeon General’s first oral health report, issued in 2000.
Having cavities doesn’t mean a person has poor oral health, Scheer said. If the cavities are treated and the person takes steps to keep their teeth and gums healthy, they can still be in good oral health, she said.
The methods for maintaining oral health are pretty simple, Watanabe said.
For starters, brush and floss daily, he said. Parents should help their children to brush until the child has enough dexterity to write his or her name, Watanabe said.
Regular visits to the dentist are also important, he said. In most cases, you should see the dentist every six months for exams and cleanings. You should also contact the dentist as soon as you detect a dental problem, Watanabe said.
Eating a healthy diet with fruits and vegetables and avoiding smoking also promote oral health, Scheer said.
Poor oral health, however, can affect a person’s overall health.
Research has linked poor oral health to heart infections, clogged arteries, strokes, respiratory problems and, for pregnant women, premature birth and low birth weight, Watanabe said.
In many cases, the additional health problems are due to bacteria in the mouth spreading via the bloodstream, he said. The bacteria can attach to damaged areas of the heart and can aggravate existing lung conditions, increasing the risk of pneumonia, Watanabe said.
Poor oral health can also negatively impact people with diabetes, he said.
“It can increase the severity of diabetes because when the person has gum disease, they have a harder time controlling their blood sugars,” Watanabe said.
In addition, poor oral health can cause pain, poor appearance, difficulty chewing and sleeping problems — all of which affect a person’s quality of life and well-being, Watanabe said.
A person’s health conditions can also impact his or her oral health, Scheer said. A person receiving chemotherapy for cancer or taking certain medications may experience dry mouth. Dry mouth increases a person’s risk of tooth decay and periodontal (gum) disease, she said.
“Oral health is important in so many ways many people don’t realize,” Scheer said.