Expectant mothers have a lot to think about when it comes to maintaining their own health, as well as the health of their soon-to-be child. Traditionally, these health maintenance needs are addressed through supplemental nutrition, as well as providing special attention to one’s diet. At the same time, though, dental care is often overlooked, despite several known links between inadequate oral care and pregnancy complications.
Though you might not expect it, pregnancy and dental care actually go hand-in-hand. This is due to a variety of health issues that may spring up as a result of periodontitis or gum disease. This condition results from an infection in your gums, which may, in turn, activate immune-responses across your entire body and cause complications for pregnant women (such as preterm labor and low birth weight).
Both of these complications are on the rise in certain parts of the industrialized world, so it is imperative that this potential contributing factor is addressed as soon as possible. Periodontitis is unpleasant in general terms and, as you’ll learn, could put you at risk for pregnancy complications.
Over my 20 years working in the field of dentistry, I have helped many women improve their dental health in order to decrease their susceptibility to these pregnancy-related risks. As such, I believe that all women who are considering starting a new family in the near future should take these oral health factors into consideration and discuss them with their healthcare providers at their earliest convenience.
What is Periodontitis?
According to the European Federation of Periodontology, periodontitis (commonly known as gum disease) is a fairly common condition wherein the patient’s gums become inflamed. Often signaled by redness, swelling, and bleeding in the affected area, periodontitis actually represents your body’s attempts to ward off an infection that has infiltrated your gum’s soft exterior.
In regular terms, periodontitis is an undesirable condition that causes oral discomfort in the short term and permanent gum damage if left untreated. Periodontitis can also lead to tooth loss in some cases due to the breakdown of the gum structure. That being said, periodontitis poses a unique degree of risk to pregnant mothers based upon an assortment of recent studies.
Connections between Periodontitis and Pregnancy
Most folks assume that oral health and general body health fall into separate realms based upon the fact that they visit separate care providers for each. But in fact, contemporary medical research has revealed that these differentiated categories can have an acute effect on one another, as evidenced in the case of periodontitis and its effects on pregnant women.
Specifically, several recent studies have drawn a critical link between the presence of periodontitis in an expectant mother with an increased risk for late-stage pregnancy complications. These risks include premature labor as well as low birth weight (even when carried to full-term). Both of these complications can have long-term impacts on the child’s health and wellbeing, making periodontitis a serious issue for pregnant women and their doctors to discuss.
One study (published in the Journal of Natural Science, Biology, and Medicine in 2010) identified a possible cause of this negative reaction. Researchers in that study concluded that “endotoxins released from [the] Gram-negative bacteria responsible for periodontal disease” may trigger an immune response that spreads throughout the body. For pregnant women, this spread may reach to their womb, leading to adverse reactions when it comes to development and delivery.
A second similar study (published in the International Journal of Applied and Basic Medical Research in 2015) identified specific aspects of the “fetomaternal immune response” as being a contributor to this undesirable connection between periodontitis and pregnancy complications. Both studies posted the belief that early detection would be an ideal method of lowering this risk factor because present research cannot conclude whether simultaneous treatment during pregnancy can lower these risks efficiently.
Recommendations for Preventing Periodontitis during Pregnancy
As with many forms of dental and oral hygiene, preventative treatment is the best way to stop a condition such as periodontitis from causing complications among pregnant women. In fact, given the time period required to clear an infection relating to periodontitis, such preventative measures may be the only method to ensure that a negative immune-response to said infection does not trigger the potential complications described above.
The American Dental Association provides several helpful recommendations when it comes to preventing the propagation of periodontitis, as well as preventing the condition from taking hold in the first place. As one might expect, regular checkups are the first line of defense against this type of condition, given the enhanced ability of oral and dental care professionals to spot the signs of periodontitis before it enters a fully-fledged state.
For most patients (pregnant women included), brushing one’s teeth with a fluoride-based toothpaste can greatly decrease the risks associated with periodontitis (and its connected pregnancy risks, in turn). The ADA also recommends flossing as part of this daily regimen in order to clear out inter-molar spaces where plaque that leads to periodontitis is more likely to build up.
Though it goes without saying in the case of pregnancy, smoking should be avoided entirely in order to decrease the likelihood of periodontitis. Similarly, a healthy diet that promotes oral health, in general, can help an individual’s gums fight off the kinds of infections that may put pregnant women at risk for unique complications.
A Dental Disconnect
At the end of the day, some of the misunderstandings about periodontitis and its impact on pregnant women can be chalked up to a disconnect between several different healthcare fields. As is expected, pregnant women are more likely to ask pregnancy-related questions to the general practitioner, while dental or oral care questions are posed to a dentist or oral hygienist. Because these two lines of questioning don’t usually cross, these noteworthy risks might be missed.
Also, even if every precaution is taken, some mothers and their developing children still may be at a heightened risk for complications. Those who find themselves in this category shouldn’t feel disheartened and should instead turn to the perspectives of other parents in a similar situation for inspiration. Even expectant fathers can learn a lot from these testimonials when it comes to coping with a high risk pregnancy in a healthy manner
Dr. Amanda Tavoularis graduated from the University of Washington School of Dentistry in 1995. Since then, her passion for dental excellence has lead her to continue her dental education at the prestigious Kois Center. For more information, visit Dentably.com.