Oral Health:  Why It Matters, and Not Just For Your Teeth

3 Aug 2021

Oral Health: Why It Matters, And Not Just For Your Teeth

Estimated read time: 4 minutes

Dental caries or cavities are one of the main problems affecting oral health and remain prevalent in most of the American continent, with numbers staying relatively unchanged in the last 30 years. A tendency to delay care for this condition, which usually begins in childhood; high rates of cavities among school-age populations, an average of 90%; and in many cases an absence of dental care altogether continue to impact overall health.

Oral health experts emphasize the many obstacles facing dental care in the region, a complex, multifaceted issue that involves health authorities, the oral beauty industry, and personal care habits.

Among these obstacles, they point to a low level of education on oral health among these populations, largely due to a lack of public health campaigns at the national and local level as well as a shortage of dentists and related health professionals, including dental assistants and technicians.

man with hand on the side of his cheek indicating toothache

On this last point, the disparities are stark. Per 10,000 residents in Mexico, there are 1.37 dentists; 0.1 in Guatemala; 0.33 in Honduras; and 8.7 in El Salvador. Meanwhile, there are 15.35 dentists for every 10,000 people in Argentina; 14.5 in Uruguay; and 10.1 in Colombia. In the US, there are 6.1 dentists per 10,000 residents.

Dental illness and treatment in the region are also influenced by geographic and socioeconomic factors. Studies show significant disparities in access to oral care depending on income, as well as differences in oral health between people in cities versus those who live in rural areas.

For example, one study in Peru involving 604 students in rural communities revealed a prevalence of dental cavities of 85.26%, and 61.75% for untreated cavities. That research also showed that rates of cavities in urban areas, while still high, are about 10 points lower.

The Issues Don’t Stop At Your Mouth

Among other measures, the Latin America Oral Health Association recommends interventions at the local level, increased access to odontological treatment, and, most importantly, a lower consumption of sugar, added sugars, and sweetened products. When combined with poor oral health, these can turn our mouths into breeding grounds for cavities and other more serious health problems.

Though it may seem obvious to mention, the mouth is not separate from the rest of the body. Oral health issues affecting the teeth and gums also impact our overall health, and can even be among the causes of several medical conditions that are much more serious than cavities.

The mouth acts as an entrance to the body, where the first stages of the digestive and respiratory systems take place, and it’s full of bacteria. If a person does not maintain appropriate oral health, brushing their teeth two or three times a day and flossing, the bacteria in the mouth continue to multiply, causing cavities and inflammation.

But they can also spread to other parts of the body, contributing to the development of life-threatening illnesses. These include:

  1. Heart disease and diabetes. Different studies show a relationship between serious gum diseases like gingivitis and the development of heart conditions such as endocarditis and type 2 diabetes.
  2. Bacterial pneumonia. Bacteria in the mouth can be aspirated into the lungs, potentially causing pneumonia.
  3. Pregnancy risks. Women who have untreated cavities during their pregnancy run a higher risk of developing benign overgrowths of tissue called “pregnancy tumors” related to excess plaque caused by hormonal fluctuations. There is also a pervasive myth that it is not necessary to go to the dentist during a pregnancy, when in reality it is all the more important, since maintaining good oral health can help prevent illness in the mother and her child. Studies point to a higher risk of premature birth and low birth weight babies in mothers with oral health conditions.
  4. Managing diabetes. Oral diseases can impact levels of sugar in the blood, making it harder to keep diabetes under control.

Other conditions whose symptoms often start in the mouth include eating disorders such as anorexia and bulimia; malnutrition; and illnesses that affect the amount of saliva in the mouth, causing dry mouth or excessive saliva production.

And, of course, there is tobacco use. Smokers are three times more likely to lose all their teeth compared to people who don’t smoke.

Gum disease and tooth loss, combined with dental cavities, are the top three most common oral conditions regionally and globally.

woman getting a dental cleaning

Dental check-ups can aid in the early detection of illnesses that affect us far beyond our teeth. Broken or damaged teeth can also be a sign of other issues, such as domestic abuse.

We talk, breathe, and eat with our mouths. Oral diseases can cause pain and lead to infections that affect our ability to learn, speak, and eat. Suffering from poor oral health or losing teeth can affect our relationships and even impact our academic or professional lives. It’s not just about having whiter teeth -- it’s about having healthier teeth.

There are several efficient sanitary measures that could help lower the rates of cavities and other oral complications through relatively inexpensive and simple interventions, such as adding fluoride to local drinking water. For every dollar spent on water fluoridation, an estimated $250 is saved on future dental care costs, according to the Pan American Health Organization.

In addition, including dental care in your general health plan and connecting your odontology and primary care services won’t just keep you smiling — it may save you money, by improving your quality of life and helping prevent disease.

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