Wearing masks, social distancing, and washing hands frequently are effective precautions against contracting COVID-19, but your oral hygiene is also an important part of staying healthy.
Proper oral hygiene might not prevent you from getting infected with COVID-19, but a new study shows that gum disease is linked to worse outcomes for infected patients because it triggers additional respiratory issues that increase the risk of death. Brushing and flossing have always been important, but COVID-19 is a reminder that avoiding gum disease is crucial. Here’s why:
Deadly protein leads to cytokine storm
In a three-month study organized by Dr. Shervin Molayem, founder of the UCLA Dental Research Journal, and Dr. Carla Pontes, a scientist and healthcare researcher in South Africa, researchers identified a harmful protein called IL-6 that is released in patients with gum disease. This protein can spread to the lungs and promote inflammation. Patients who have gum disease can inhale the IL-6 laden bacteria in their gums, where it adheres to the lung tissue. This can cause what is known as a cytokine storm, which is an overreaction of the body’s immune system that leads to severe inflammation of the lung tissue. One of the most common symptoms of COVID-19 is difficulty breathing, and a cytokine storm exacerbates this.
Higher chances of ventilator use and death
Patients who are infected with COVID-19 and have high levels of IL-6 due to gum disease are 22 times more likely to be placed on a ventilator. According to the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention, 80% of all COVID-19 patients who were put on a ventilator ending up dying earlier in the pandemic. The rate of recovery has increased in the last few months, but there is still no defining predictor of which patients will have worse outcomes. Patients of all ages and health backgrounds continue to die from the virus, and one of the only common denominators is likely the prevalence of gum disease.
Protecting the vulnerable
As a result of the study, researchers are prompting places with vulnerable populations, such as nursing homes and hospitals, to adopt regular dental screenings to catch early signs of gum disease before patients catch COVID-19. The elderly are especially vulnerable, as they are already more susceptible to gum disease. Most COVID-19 deaths have occurred with patients over the age of 65.
Regardless of age or health condition, researchers recommend everyone optimize their oral hygiene routine, reduce sugar and carb consumption that can encourage bacteria growth in the mouth, and take daily doses of vitamin C, vitamin D3, zinc and turmeric. While following these recommendations won’t prevent you from contracting COVID-19, they will reduce your chances of ventilator use and death.
“As the death toll keeps climbing, the CDC now predicts [COVID-19] will be among the leading causes of death in the United States, just behind heart disease and cancer,” said Dr. Molayem in a press release about the study. “Now that we suspect periodontitis makes it even deadlier, if you’re worried that you may have gum disease, your next trip to the dentist may actually save your life.”
Get checked for early signs of gum disease
In addition to daily brushing and flossing, a good oral health routine includes at least twice-yearly visits to the dentist for an exam and professional cleaning. But if you suspect you might have gum disease—symptoms include red, swollen, or tender gums, or bleeding while brushing or flossing—call San Diego Periodontics and Implant Dentistry at (619) 543-0905 to schedule an immediate exam.