Have you ever stopped to consider what the greatest threat to your smile is? It might be traumatic impact from a fall. If you smoke or chew tobacco, then it might be the chemicals your mouth is exposed to through the habit.
In most cases, however, the greatest threat to your dental health is something you can’t always see; an ever-growing mass of oral bacteria.
You may have heard about the oral microbiome. It is a collection of microorganisms and their genes that live on and in the human body. These microbes play a significant role in your health and well-being.
Experts have identified over 600 types of different bacteria in the oral microbiome, with even more yet to be classified.
What they’ve observed about the germs that live in your mouth and their behavior may make you reconsider what you believe to be your smile’s most formidable foe.
What are oral bacteria?
Bacteria are microscopic organisms that you can’t taste, feel, or see with the naked eye, but they are busy in your mouth, feeding on the nutrients in your meals and beverages. While many of them do no harm, and some are even beneficial, there are several bacteria species that can cause oral diseases.
The product of harmful bacteria is a sticky biofilm known as dental plaque. When enough bacteria in your mouth accumulate, they leave you with plaque all over your teeth’s surfaces, including between them and along your gum line.
If you fail to brush or floss a spot of plaque off your teeth, it will calcify (harden) into tartar. Also known as calculus, tartar is a stubborn substance that offers more effective protection for harmful germs and requires a professional cleaning to remove.
Every time you eat food, kiss a partner, or even drink a glass of water, you consume millions of bacteria. While most of them don’t linger or cause harm, many decide to make a home and colonize your mouth. It’s important to remember, however, that some bacteria plaques are helpful. For instance, some offer protection to the health of teeth and gums.
The Relationship Between Oral Bacteria and Your Health
Consider the fact that your mouth is the gateway to your entire body. When bacteria cause damage to tiny blood vessels in your mouth, the pathogens can enter your bloodstream. While your immune system can effectively destroy most of these bacteria, some sneak past and find a place to live.
Numerous diseases and conditions are associated with the same bacteria found in the mouth. Therefore, patients with poor oral hygiene, dental decay, or gum disease are at an increased risk for those systemic conditions, including heart disease, diabetes, and stroke.
The reverse can also be true, however, which means your oral health can be influenced by diseases in the body. Diabetics, for instance, are much more likely to have gum disease than people who don’t have diabetes.
The Bacteria That Causes Gum Disease
For the bacteria that decide to linger in your oral cavity, they take on a specific job. Again, some are beneficial, but others do nothing but harm. The most notorious of the bad bacterias is Porphyromonas gingivalis, and it is a malicious one.
You see, when your immune system detects harmful bacteria, it reacts by causing inflammation to drive out the bacteria before infection sets in. P. gingivalis, however, tricks the immune system by producing a molecule that allows it to evade the inflammation. This excessive swelling ends up damaging your gum tissue, leading to gum disease, also known as periodontal disease.
In its mild form, gum disease is called gingivitis. In this stage, you may experience swollen, tender, red gums that tend to bleed easily.
Left untreated, gingivitis progresses to periodontitis, which can destroy the gums and jawbone that support your teeth. Over time, this can lead to tooth loss, and it happens more than you think. In fact, gum disease is the leading cause of adult tooth loss in the United States.
But there are even more reasons to be wary of these harmful bacteria. Researchers are especially interested in this germ for its effect on your overall health. They believe P. Gingivalis can get into the bloodstream through damaged oral tissues and potentially incite inflammation throughout your body. This means that if you have gum disease, you could be at an increased risk for numerous health issues, including heart disease, respiratory problems, diabetes, and dementia.
The Germ That Loves Sugar
If you’ve wondered just why candy and other sugary substances cause cavities, then Streptococcus mutans is your answer. These carb-hungry oral bacteria consume sugar and starches, then convert them into acid that attacks tooth enamel. Made up almost entirely of minerals from your teeth, tooth enamel is the hard outer layer of your teeth.
Bacterial acid depletes your teeth of essential minerals, making it difficult for enamel to regain its strength in the face of acid attacks. It usually dissipates within 20-30 minutes after your last bite or sip, but the more often you eat and drink, the more your teeth are exposed to acid erosion.
In time, S. mutans and their acid can strip the enamel from your teeth, leaving them vulnerable to tooth decay (cavities).
The Traveling Bacteria
The problem with oral bacteria is that they don’t respect boundaries. When your gums are bleeding and diseased, chewing or brushing your teeth can release the germs into your bloodstream. Some bacteria that are harmless in your mouth can prove significantly dangerous to other body tissues.
For instance, Streptococcus gordonii (not to be confused with its cousin, S. mutans) goes incognito by mimicking the protein fibrinogen. As a blood clotting agent, fibrinogen activates your blood platelets, which clump around S. gordonii microbes to protect them from your immune system.
Though you can’t blame a germ for trying to survive, the excessive clotting can increase your risk for cardiovascular trouble, like heart attack and failure.
Managing Oral Bacteria
In a healthy mouth, the good bacteria keep the bad bacteria under control. But poor oral hygiene, an unhealthy diet, and many health issues can shift this balance, allowing the bad bacteria to take over.
When harmful bacteria proliferate, it can lead to halitosis (bad breath), gum disease, cavities, and tooth loss. The bad news is, once you have harmful bacteria, you probably can’t get rid of it since the genes live in your microbiome. The good news, however, is that there are ways to keep them in check.
Every time you brush and floss, you are taking steps to control these bacteria and keep them from reproducing. The American Dental Association (ADA) recommends oral care to include flossing every day and brushing twice a day. It is also a great idea to swish and rinse with water after eating.
Another helpful thing to add to your hygiene routine is an antibacterial mouthwash at least once a day.
Moreover, it is essential to keep up with routine dental checkups and cleanings to remove plaque and tartar.
Your diet is also key to good oral health. Eat healthy foods that promote beneficial bacteria. Avoiding sugary snacks will go a long way to promote a healthy smile.
Is it time to see a dentist?
At Lake Forest Dental Arts, Dr. James Fondriest and his caring, friendly team combine extensive experience with modern technology. We proudly serve patients from Chicago and all surrounding communities.
If you need advice, diagnosis, or treatment, call (847) 234-0517 today to schedule your consultation.