Is the Overlooked Bacteria in Your Mouth Increasing Your COVID Risk?
A Case for Good Oral Hygiene
As the global pandemic continues to disrupt our daily lives, it has become an area of feverish study for scientists all over the country and all over the world. Beyond looking at the basics of how the COVID-19 virus works, scientists have started to ask broader questions to help understand exactly how this disease functions in various groups of people and how we can best protect ourselves and our loved ones from a serious illness.
One major area of study is how other pre-existing conditions and how existing states of health could change the way the SARS-COV2 virus and COVID-19 illness progresses in individuals. The connections between certain conditions, commonly referred to as co-morbidities, and poor outcomes were clearly visible from very early in our understanding of this disease. Now, there are numerous investigations into areas where the correlation between possible co-morbidities and poor outcomes are not as clear, but what is clear is that we don’t understand everything about what determines the seriousness of how COVID-19 illness progresses in each individual.
A recent study published in the British Dental Journal titled “Could there be a link between oral hygiene and the severity of SARS-CoV-2 infections?” looked at just such a factor, trying to understand additional underlying health factors that can impact the severity of COVID illnesses. The authors noted that in 52% of fatal illnesses, there were no co-morbidities from the list of known risk factors that could readily explain why the person became so sick. The researchers considered oral health and wanted to determine if poor oral health might be playing a role in the severity of the disease. They noted that COVID-19 complications—blood clots, sepsis, pneumonia, acute respiratory distress—are complications associated with bacterial overgrowth when seen in other illnesses.
In exploring the link between oral health and COVID-19 illness, this study soon identified that known risks from bacterial overload in the mouth. including heart disease and diabetes, are common complications that make COVID-19 illness more severe. They also pointed out the additional risks related to aspirating (breathing in) saliva with a high oral bacterial load for causing pneumonia and other respiratory difficulties. Finally, they examine the link between increased inflammation, a known problem from high oral bacterial load, and poor outcomes in COVID-19. They conclude that oral health should be maintained or improved to preserve overall health during the pandemic.
This study brings attention to an important topic—oral hygiene as it relates to overall health and risk of exacerbating other infections. The authors’ conclusion is just logical. It shouldn’t take a giant mental leap to take what we already know about the oral-systemic link to disease and apply it to this new disease. I have long believed that you can’t have a healthy body if you have an unhealthy mouth. The science is clear about that.
Could poor oral hygiene put you at risk for more serious levels of infection or outcomes from other diseases? It’s a good question and one that needs to be studied directly, particularly in terms of COVID, but it makes sense. COVID is a viral respiratory inflammatory disease of the lungs, which creates a cytokine storm, but people die frequently from bacterial pneumonia at the end stage of this disease. Having high bacterial loads in the mouth has been shown to increase the risk of aspiration pneumonia. The potential for bacteria to worsen viral illness is real.
If you needed it, this provides one more reason to take good care of yourself and pay attention to your oral hygiene. Even if you have to delay dental visits, an excellent home care routine is called for now, and every day to prevent oral illness and lessen the likelihood of poor oral health worsening your overall health.