As kids are going back to school and the seasons are turning from summer to fall, it’s time to face the dreaded cold and flu season. And along with these common illnesses, there is a dreaded companion: deadly pneumonia. Although in the past we have thought that pneumonia bacteria were largely acquired from external sources, it turns out that some gum disease bacteria could be to blame for pneumonia, and it’s possible that treating gum disease may lower your pneumonia risk.
Pneumonia is currently the sixth leading cause of death in the US. It’s also the leading cause of death among the elderly, people over the age of 80. It is expected that as our population ages, pneumonia will become an even more deadly threat.
Pneumonia is a lung infection cause by bacteria, virus or fungus. Identifying the cause of pneumonia is important because the best treatment for pneumonia depends on what microorganism caused the condition.
Pneumonia typically occurs when:
- You have a weakened immune system
- You are exposed to a strong germ or one that is present in very large amounts
- Your body fails to filter out germs
These germs then penetrate into one or both lungs, where they begin to damage your lung tissue. Your body responds with an inflammatory response, which means the tissue swells and produces additional fluid. In your lungs, this can limit your ability to get crucial oxygen into your blood, which is needed not only to survive, but also to fight the infection.
Oral Bacteria in Pneumonia
Normally, bacteria from pneumonia are cultured in a lab to determine what is causing your pneumonia. Two types of bacteria that aren’t normally thought to participate in pneumonia are anaerobic bacteria (bacteria that don’t use oxygen, which play a role in bad breath) and oral bacteria. Anaerobic bacteria aren’t found in cultures, and when oral bacteria are found, they are assumed to be contaminants because of the spit that is used for the culture.
However, a recent study showed that both these types of bacteria are actually fairly common in the lungs of pneumonia patients. In this study, samples were taken from the lungs of 64 people with pneumonia and tested using two different methods, typical culturing and genetic analysis. It was found that the most common bacteria were those known to cause pneumonia–Streptococcus pneumoniae (present in 18.8% of samples), Haemophilus influenzae (18.8%), and Mycoplasma pneumoniae (17.2%)–but they weren’t that higher than the two classes previously thought to be innocent: anaerobes (15.6%) and oral bacteria (15.6%).
A Potential Role of Oral Bacteria in Pneumonia
This is an important connection. Although it doesn’t prove that oral bacteria can cause pneumonia or even worsen it, it does remind us that oral bacteria can opportunistically take advantage of opportunities to spread through the body and may cause health problems elsewhere. This is why it’s important to keep gum disease under control with regular dental visits and proper oral hygiene.
Who knows, it may even save your life.