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  What's the Mouth Got To Do With It?

Lynda McKeown, RDH, HBA, MA

The reporter from the local newspaper was interviewing me. He wanted to know more about the Fresh Breath Clinic. The conversation somehow moved from the topic of treating clients with oral malodor at the Fresh Breath clinic to bacterial plaque removal for residents in long term care facilities. As I rambled on about lowering the bacterial 'loads' in the mouth to prevent other illnesses Jim, the reporter, interrupted. "What's the mouth got to do with other diseases?" "Various bacteria in the mouth have been found to contribute to other disease in the body," I replied.

During our conversation, I had 'introduced' Jim to Prophyromonas Gingivalis, Treponema Denticola and Bacteriodes Forsythus in relation to periodontal disease and chronic bad breath. He was 'mildly' interested. After all, he had a job to do. He had to prepare an article for the health section of the paper. He was being appropriately attentive as I supplied information about testing for breath odor.

Then I remembered something on my desk. My sister had e-mailed an article prepared by Christian Millman, prepared for a Men's Health section for ABC News. I was able to quote: "Farmers, cowboys and other sensible men always examine a horse's mouth before buying the animal. One good look can sum up the horse's health history and predict how long the old boy will live. A human mouth isn't much different. Keep your pie hole clean so disease causing bacteria don't gain entry to your blood stream."

I could tell that I 'caught' his attention. It was my good fortune that another part of the article referred to bacteria we had previously mentioned when we talked about breath odor problems.

Dr. Robert J. Genco of the University of Buffalo studies 1372 people at the Gila River Indian community in Arizona. He found that those with gum disease had triple the risk of heart attacks in a 10-year period. He believes that oral bacteria enter the blood stream through small tears in the gums. The bacteria Genco suggests, may infect the liver and cause it to produce artery clogging proteins, or the bacteria may directly infect the heart arteries and somehow cause blockages. The exact mode of attack is still a mystery, but porphyromonas gingivalis bacteria have been found in fatty arterial blockages that cause heart failure.

A further portion of the article related to our discussion about residents in long term care: "With every breath, your lungs suck down a stew of bacteria including chlamydia, pneumonia and pseudommas aeruginosa, two bugs that cause respiratory disease. Our immune systems usually destroy these invaders, but when a person's resistance is low, such as during an illness or after surgery, these bugs can infect our lungs and cause bacterial pneumonia."

I explained to Jim that if a person in a long term care facility has a great deal of bacterial accumulation in their mouth, the 'barrier systems' of the mouth may 'break down' resulting in respiratory pneumonia. If a resident has to be moved to an acute care facility for treatment, this is costly to the publicly funded health care system. Therefore, it is cost effective to keep the mouth clean.

Now I observe that Jim is thinking. Then he said to me, "My dentist takes about 15 minutes to clean my teeth. My friends tell me that their appointments are usually an hour. Now it is my turn to pause and think."

"Jim," I said, "How about asking your paper if you can do an assignment? We have a dental hygiene program at the Community College in town. A dental hygiene student will examine your mouth and clean your teeth with faculty supervision. Now only will you get a human interest story, you will also gain a better understanding of the importance of a clean mouth."

As dental hygienists, we need to take advantage of opportunities in our communities to explain what the mouth has to do with general health and wellness. Jim titled his article; "It's a Jungle in There!" The title teases the reader to pursue the information: "What the Mouth Has To Do With It."