You may ask what the health of your mouth has to do with your overall health? But in a word, plenty! A look inside your mouth, or a swab of saliva can tell your doctor so much about what's going on inside the rest of your body, this often serves as a helpful vantage point for detecting the early signs and symptoms of systemic disease. Systemic conditions such as AIDS or diabetes, for example, often first become apparent as mouth lesions or other oral problems. In fact, according to the Academy of General Dentistry, more than 90 percent of all systemic diseases produce oral signs and symptoms. Your doctor can collect and test saliva to detect for a variety of substances. For example, cortisol levels in saliva are used to test for stress responses in newborn children. And fragments of certain bone-specific proteins may be useful in monitoring bone loss in women and men prone to osteoporosis. Certain cancer markers are also detectable in saliva.
Routine saliva testing can also measure illegal drugs, environmental toxins, hormones and antibodies indicating hepatitis or HIV infection, among other things. In the future, saliva testing may replace blood testing as a means of diagnosing and monitoring diseases such as diabetes, Parkinson's disease, cirrhosis of the liver and many infectious diseases.
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 defenses, 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 (bacteremia) 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.
Long-term gum infection can eventually result in the loss of your teeth. But the consequences may not end there. Recent research suggests that there may be an association between oral infections — primarily gum infections — and poorly controlled diabetes, cardiovascular disease and preterm birth.
If you didn't already have enough reasons to take good care of your mouth, teeth and gums, the relationship between your oral health and your overall health provides even more. Resolve to practice good oral hygiene every day. You're making an investment in your overall health, not just for now, but for the future too.