By Lucy Elkins
When we glance at our teeth in the mirror, most of us are thinking only of our appearance. But more important is to look at the state of our gums.
Gum disease — or peridontal disease as it’s known properly — affects around 80 per cent of Britons at some point.
As well as bad breath and problems with your teeth, emerging research is now linking it to conditions ranging from heart disease to miscarriage and erectile dysfunction. Earlier this month it was revealed gum disease can even make it harder for women to conceive.
‘Gum disease occurs when plaque — a jelly like film of bacteria — clings to the teeth and irritates the gums, resulting in inflammation,’ explains Dr Nigel Carter, chief executive of the British Dental Health Foundation.
‘The first sign is normally bleeding of the gums around one or more of the teeth, and often there are no more symptoms until years later when the teeth become wobbly and ultimately fall out as the inflammation eats at the ligaments attaching the teeth to the bones, and even the bone itself.’
The early stage of gum disease — when the gums are inflamed and bleeding — is known as gingivitis.
‘Dentists will be able to spot the problem, as the gum colour changes from a healthy pink to a duller colour, but most people would not see this,’ says Mr Carter.
Gum disease can affect anyone of any age, but is especially prevalent among the elderly, as they produce less saliva. This means bacteria find it easier to stick to the teeth. Smokers, diabetics and pregnant women are also at higher risk, and genetics can play a part.
The condition can be prevented by cleaning twice a day for two minutes each time. But a survey last month by the British Dental Health Foundation found that 47 per cent of the UK population do not clean their teeth regularly.
Cleaning and flossing should be backed up by visits to the dentist every six to 12 months.
Once gum disease has set in, bacteria are able to enter the blood stream via blood vessels around the teeth and then travel around the body. This sets off a cascade of reactions, leading to inflammation and damage.
Here, we reveal the surprising effects this can have on your health . . .
Researchers in Australia have discovered that if a woman has gum disease it will take on average two months longer for her to conceive, compared with a woman with healthy teeth and gums.
The theory is that the bacteria that cause gum disease might trigger inflammation in the lining of the womb, making it harder for a fertilised egg to implant here. Gum disease has an impact after conception, too. Studies have linked it to an increased risk of both premature birth and miscarriage.
Last year, a study carried out by the University of Pennsylvania followed 872 pregnant women, of whom 160 had gum disease. Among the pregnant women without gum disease, 7 per cent gave birth before 35 weeks of pregnancy — compared with 23 per cent among the women with gum disease.
And one study carried out at Guy’s and St Thomas’ Hospital in London in 2004 followed almost 4,000 pregnant women and found the worse the state of the teeth and gums, the higher the risk of them having a late miscarriage.
‘It may be that the inflammation in the gums triggers the production of chemicals (such as prostaglandin) that stimulate birth,’ says Mr Carter.