Ask the dentist: What's the link between gum disease and lung disease?

A clean and healthy mouth benefits our general health, says Lucy Stock of Gentle Dental Care

Looking after your gums can pay dividends for your general health
Looking after your gums can pay dividends for your general health Looking after your gums can pay dividends for your general health

My grandmother had all her teeth removed at the tender age of 21 years old as a wedding present. I think I'd rather have a toaster. However at that time, in the 1920s, they believed in the focal infection theory.

This was the idea of removing anything infected from the body before it could spread and cause a generalised infection that could end your days.

Antibiotics were not discovered until 1928, so infections were a lot more deadly then.

By the mid-20th century, the theory was debunked as the link between, say, a tooth abscess and general disease could not be nailed down.

Fast forward a hundred years and this notion has gained traction as scientific techniques have blossomed.

Let us look at gum disease and its palsy-walsy relationship to lung diseases such as pneumonia, COPD, asthma, Covid-19, bronchiectasis or tuberculosis.

For billions of years, bacteria ruled the world and then humans came into existence as the ultimate biological motorhome to house and transport these microscopic entities.

The mouth is home to the second largest community of microbes in the body; mostly bacteria, but also fungi, viruses, archaea and protozoa.

In health, they just mosey around but when the scales are tipped towards disease these little fellows multiply and accomplish feats such as causing our teeth to fall out by lunching on our jaw bone.

Oral micro-organisms are great adventurers and are seldom content to stagnate in the mouth. They love to slip down the crevices around our teeth, into the super highway bloodstream or journey on a rollercoaster breath inhalation touching down onto the delicate air sacs of our lungs.

They resourcefully also travel the other way. When we cough up phlegm the bugs magnificently rain down all over our teeth and gums. The tiny fellows that normally dwell in the mouth have been found in diseased lung tissue.

The knee bone is connected to the thigh bone; the focal infection theory has got legs.

The good news is that studies have shown that if you look after your gums better at home or have treatments to promote gum health at the dentist, it slows the deterioration of the lungs and reduces how often you need treatment in hospital for lung conditions; brush to breathe easier.