For many women, pregnancy is a time that’s part blissful… and part stressful. As your body begins a process of dramatic changes, you may start paying more attention to your overall health and well-being. That’s good! What’s not so good is that, with all the demands of pregnancy, it can be hard to take care of every little detail. Perhaps, with everything else that’s going on, you may be tempted to slack off on your oral hygiene routine. Here’s why you shouldn’t.
You probably know that many of the physical and emotional changes in pregnancy are mediated by hormones, such as estrogen and progesterone. These chemicals, produced by the body, help regulate how cells use energy, grow and change. Hormone levels increase naturally during pregnancy; but while necessary, these high hormone levels can have a few unwanted side effects—including an increased susceptibility to gum disease. This can cause a condition, relatively common in expectant mothers, called “pregnancy gingivitis.”
Hormones aren’t solely responsible for this type of gum disease; pathogenic (disease-causing) bacteria must be present in the mouth already. Under normal circumstances, regular brushing and flossing may be enough to keep these harmful bacteria under control. In the absence of good oral hygiene, however, a sticky substance called plaque starts to build up on the surfaces of your teeth—and that’s where harmful bacteria can flourish. Put plaque bacteria together with gums that are affected by pregnancy hormones, and you’ve got a recipe for a more aggressive gum disease than normal.
Gingivitis, if left untreated, can progress to a more serious form of gum disease called periodontitis. This is a bacterial infection that can attack not only the gums, but also the bone that supports the teeth; the loss of supporting bone can eventually lead to tooth loss. But moms aren’t the only ones who feel the effects of gum disease: A number of studies indicate that it may cause health problems in unborn children as well.
While the exact mechanism isn’t yet clear, research suggests that harmful oral bacteria can pass through the placenta into the fetus, triggering an inflammatory response. This can cause labor to begin prematurely, and may result in low birth weight. Some studies also point to a link between gum disease and a condition called pre-eclampsia—a form of dangerously high blood pressure that may occur during pregnancy.
The good news is: There are several things you can do to help keep gum disease from getting out of hand. First, try to control your diet as much as possible. Eat plenty of fruits, whole grains and vegetables, and avoid sugary treats—especially between meals. If you smoke, quit. Tobacco users are far more likely to develop gum disease than non-smokers; your gums (and your new baby) will thank you.
Be sure to keep up your regular oral hygiene routine during pregnancy. That means brushing twice a day with fluoride toothpaste, and flossing every day. But even with consistent at-home care, you still need to see your dentist regularly—especially during pregnancy. At the dental office you’ll get a thorough cleaning, a thorough exam, and, if needed, appropriate treatment—including effective treatment for gum disease. Following your dentist’s advice is the best way to make sure that your gums will stay healthy throughout your pregnancy—and to make sure you keep smiling long after your baby’s birth.
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