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Bleeding Gums

Can Bleeding Gums Kill You?
No doubt, the question may elicit a few snickers and maybe even the occasional one-liner like “No, but I know someone whose breath could kill!” Nevertheless, the possibly shocking truth is that yes, bleeding gums and poor oral health can kill you.

As a practicing dentist, I see all levels of home care. There are patients who practice excellent hygiene and have firm, pink and healthy gums or teeth without cavities. Then there are those who probably wouldn’t recognize a toothbrush if it poked them in the eye and whose mouths have so much plaque it looks like they just finished eating cottage cheese.

The bottom line is - where along this spectrum do you fall - and what can it mean for your overall health?

As I write this, I recall a question posed to me by one of my patients just yesterday. He told me that one of his “lady friends” had recently passed away. According to his story, he had seen her a few weeks ago and then noticed she wasn’t around very much. When he asked about her, he learned she had died as a result of complications following a dental abscess. His question “is that possible?” reflected an incredulity that is typical when it comes to the effects of oral health on the body.

Again, my answer was “yes, it’s possible.” Severe sepsis, which is basically a systemic inflammatory response to infection, can lead to organ failure and death. His friend was forty-two years old.

Obviously, this is an extreme example of infection travelling from one site and affecting the entire organism, but there are more subtle examples that are no less significant. Take bleeding gums. There are probably few people who haven’t experienced this phenomenon at some point or another in their lifetimes. If you are a hypochondriac, you probably should stop reading right now. If, on the other hand, you are just interested in knowing what significant step you can take to reduce your risk for heart attack or stroke, read on.

If I were to speculate, I think that many physicians and dentists probably still don’t think of tooth-related infections as systemic risk factors. The science behind this concept, however, is clear. Anyone caring to investigate the existing research may find the following:

• Odontogenic Infection Can Cause Death [1]
• Infection = Heart Attack and Stroke [2]
• Infection = Trigger for Stroke [3]
• Periodontal Disease = Systemic Risk [4]
• C-Reactive Proteins are Four Times More Predictive of Cardiovascular Complications than Cholesterol. (If you have periodontal disease, your C-reactive proteins are significantly elevated.) [5]
• Periodontal Infections are a Portal for Systemic Inflammation [6]
• Periodontal Inflammation: from gingivitis to systemic disease? [7]

That’s just a sampling of the articles which conclude that red gums represent a disease process unto itself. If red gums represent inflammation and infection, then bleeding gums are definitely not something you should ignore. Even if you are not worried about your health, you may be surprised to know that many clinicians believe that aging is caused by systemic inflammation. There are a few studies supporting this theory as well, but the point is simple: don’t ignore your oral health. You might even look younger if you take care of your teeth!

One of the simplest ways to reduce inflammation is to control the bacteria in your mouth. Start by brushing after meals and flossing every day. Eat a proper diet rich in vitamins and minerals. Get enough rest. Exercise, and reduce stress.
Also, don’t forget to visit your dentist regularly. Because so many dental conditions are symptom-free in their early stages, patients can be hit hard by neglect. The perception of “no pain, no problems” is often misleading when it comes to dental problems. Couple this with the fact that in tough economic times, people tend to put off what they perceive as optional or unpleasant, and you can have a formula for disaster - financial, or otherwise . . . .
                                                                                                                                                                                                            by Richard J. Walicki, D.M.D. - February, 2010


1. J Nucl Med. 1992 Feb; 33(2):254-5. Related Articles, Links. Spread of infectious complications of Odontogenic abscess detected by technetium-99m-HMPAO-labelled WBC scan of occult sepsis in the intensive care unit. Kao CH, Wang SJ. Department of Nuclear Medicine, Taichung Veterans General Hospital, Taiwan Republic of China

2. (Ann Med. 1991; 23(5):539-43.) Infection as a risk factor for infarction and atherosclerosis. Valtonen VV. Second Department of Medicine, Helsinki University Central Hospital, Finland.

3. (Curr Treat Options Cardiovasc Med. 2005 Jul; 7(3): 187-95.) Role of Anti-Infective Strategies in the Prevention of Stroke. Grau AJ. Department of Neurology, Klinikum der Stadt Ludwigshafen a. Rhein, Bremserstr. 70, Ludwigshafen am Rhein 67063, Germany.

4. (Ann Periodontol, 2002 Dec: 7(1) 79-89) Relationships among clinical measures of periodontal disease and their associations with systemic markers. Beck JD, Offenbacher S. Department of Dental Ecology, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, NC, USA.

5. (Ann Periodontol, 2002 Dec: 7(1):102-11.) Periodontitis in humans and non-human primates: oral-systemic linkage inducing acute phase proteins. Ebersole JL, Cappelli D, Mathys EC, Steffen MJ, Singer RE, Montgomery M, Mott GE, Novak MJ. Center for Oral Health Research, University of Kentucky College of Dentistry, Lexington, KY, USA.

6. J Int Acad Periodontol. 2005 April: 7(2):39-48. Evidence for periodontitis as a tertiary vascular infection. Offenbacher S, Elter JR, Lin D, Beck JD. Center for Oral and Systemic Diseases UNC School of Dentistry, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, NC 27599-7455, USA.

7. Compend Cont Educ Dent. 2004 Jul; 25 (7 Suppl 1) 16-25. Department of Oral Biology, School of Dental Medicine, State University of New York at Buffalo, Buffalo, NY, USA.