Recent studies have found that expectant mothers with periodontal disease may have a three to seven times greater risk of giving birth to pre-term and low birthweight babies. These studies should be noted by Kentuckians, who have the second highest rate of edentulism—loss of all teeth—in the nation, often resulting from periodontal disease.
Your mouth mirrors health
According to the U.S. Surgeon General’s report, oral health is integral to overall health: the mouth is a mirror for general health and well-being.
“When the bacteria or their toxins from the mouth get into the blood, they clearly increase the risk for general health problems, like endocarditis and diabetes, and also appear to contribute to pre-term and low birthweight babies,” says Jeffrey Ebersole, Ph.D., director of the University of Kentucky Center for Oral Health Research, UK College of Dentistry. “Good oral health is not just a matter of having an attractive smile.”
An average of about 10 percent of births are pre-term and 8 percent of infants born have a low birthweight, according to national health statistics. These rates are even higher in minority populations and medically underserved women, such as those in eastern Kentucky Appalachia. This rate has been virtually unchanged over the last two decades.
As part of the effort to make improvements to this problem, Ebersole, along with John Novak, Ph.D., associate director of the UK Center for Oral Health research in the UK College of Dentistry, and James E. Ferguson II, M.D., John W. Greene Jr. Professor and Chair, UK College of Medicine, Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology, are looking at the causes of periodontal disease and their effects on the mother and her newborn infant.
They already know that while brushing is important, taking care of your teeth does not always prevent periodontal disease. Other factors, such as inflammation and genetics, play a role.
Researching cause and effect
The researchers are also trying to find out if the risk of pre-term birth is due to having periodontal disease or if pre-term birth is linked to the underlying factors that cause periodontal disease.
Ultimately, researchers hope to provide evidence to make oral health a part of pregnant women’s prenatal care. By receiving oral health care, even after conception, it should be possible to deter the effects of the mother’s gum disease on the unborn baby and protect the newborn infant.
Improving mothers’ oral health
“Our goal is to develop information to demonstrate that it is very important for physicians to consider a pregnant woman’s oral health as part of her overall health screening during prenatal care,” Novak says.
Not only will improving mothers’ oral health lessen the risk of delivering early, but it will also have short- and long-term benefits to society. When a premature baby is admitted to a neonatal intensive care unit, it is estimated to cost an average of $30,000 more than if the baby is healthy.
“With more than 4,000 premature or low birthweight infants born each year in Kentucky, it is easy to see the immediate costs to the Commonwealth,” Ebersole says.
Caring for teeth and gums
Dental experts suggest paying close attention to your teeth and gums whether you’re pregnant or planning on becoming pregnant.
• Brush at least once a day with fluoride toothpaste and a soft, rounded bristle toothbrush for at least two minutes at a time.
• Flossing is also important, as it removes bacteria from areas your toothbrush does not reach.
• Regular dental visits are essential; if you’re pregnant and have no significant oral problems, one regular cleaning during the first or second trimester is important.