Many people think gum disease is just a disease of the mouth, but it’s not. Gum disease starts in the mouth, but it spreads throughout the body, spreading infection wherever it can, including your heart.
Endocarditis is an infection of the heart that can be caused by oral bacteria, leading to swelling tissue, damage to heart valves, and even an increased risk of early death. But how does this bacteria travel from your mouth to your heart? When it comes to pneumonia, oral bacteria are probably inhaled, but to reach your heart, bacteria take a different route: your blood.
When Bacteria Enter Your Blood
The mouth is actually an ideal entry point for bacteria. Your gums are dynamic tissue that is equipped with a rich blood supply, but they’re also thin tissue, making it easy for bacteria to penetrate your blood vessels. Having bacteria in your blood is called bacteremia.
Bleeding gums make it even easier for bacteria to get into your bloodstream, but your gums don’t have to be bleeding for bacteria to reach your blood.
Once bacteria are in your blood, they are transported throughout your body, allowing them to cause some of the other damage associated with gum disease, like kidney damage. But of course they are drawn to the heart, where they can set up colonies, leading to endocarditis.
In the past, it was thought that this didn’t happen very often, that it was mostly during major dental procedures like a root canal or periodontal treatment that bacteria entered the bloodstream, but now we know that bacteria are actually entering the bloodstream every day.
Bacteremia Occurs All the Time
Recent research shows that any disturbance of the gum tissue can contribute to bacteremia. This includes brushing, flossing, and even chewing. Bacteremia lasts for only about 15 minutes, whether you’ve had an extraction or just brushed your teeth. There might be more bacteria in your blood after a dental procedure, but in either case the body clears out the bacteria in the same amount of time.
This means that for people who develop bacteremia with brushing, you’re being exposed to much more bacteria as a result of that than you would with an extraction. For example, if you’re brushing your teeth twice a day, you’re being exposed to bacteria 60 times as long as you would be for an extraction. Or if you compare the difference between bacteremia caused by brushing and a checkup and hygiene visit, you suffer about 90 hours of bacteremia for toothbrushing for each 15 minutes or so from the dental visit.
Protect Your Health by Controlling Oral Bacteria
But not everyone experiences bacteremia when brushing teeth. For people with healthy gums, bacteremia during brushing is actually quite rare. If you are looking to avoid exposing your body to bacteria with alarming frequency, it’s important to maintain good oral health.