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Dental Visits May Help Prevent Pneumonia

Nov 02, 2016

By Dean George

Every year health experts offer a number of preventive steps heading into the winter months to help reduce the risk of getting pneumonia: flu and pneumococcal vaccines, frequent hand washing, not smoking, eating healthy, and getting plenty of rest and exercise.

If a recent study is correct, dental checkups twice a year could soon be added to that list.

The link between bacterial pneumonia and oral care has been documented for years in numerous case trials, but a study based on 2013 data presented in late October showed that regular dental care was a “significant factor” in pneumonia prevention.

“The risk of pneumonia appears to be decreased in those who customarily attend routine dental checkups,” said Michelle Doll, MD, MPH, an assistant professor of medicine at Virginia Commonwealth University School of Medicine. “There may be a relatively simple intervention, routine preventive dental care that can assist in achieving pneumonia prevention.”

Good oral health care can help lessen susceptibility to pneumonia is by blocking the influx of pathogenic organisms traveling from the mouth into the lungs. Experts say that even healthy people inhale small amounts of saliva into their lungs.

“The content of that saliva depends on one’s overall oral health,” Dr. Doll said. “It is believed that in persons with good oral hygiene, there is less potentially pathogenic bacteria tracking into the lung. If there are pathogenic bacteria, this could cause pneumonia.”

Thomas M. File Jr., MD and professor of medicine at Northeast Ohio Medical University agrees, reiterating that small amounts of pathogenic bacteria in saliva can prove harmful and that anything that removes microbes in the oral cavity can help protect against pneumonia, colds and flu.

In the 2013 Medical Expenditure Panel Survey (MEPS), participants were monitored for a two-year period. Dr. Doll and her team analyzed data to evaluate access to dental care defined by the number of dental visits within the year, the regularity of checkups, how many participants had dental insurance and how many had been treated for bacterial pneumonia in the past year.

The findings? Pneumonia was more frequent in those with fewer dental checkups. Specifically, those who visited the dentist less than once a year were 49% more likely to contract pneumonia, and those who had never visited a dentist were 86% more likely to catch pneumonia.

What does having dental coverage have to do with the probability of catching pneumonia? “People with coverage are significantly more likely to have regular checkups,” Dr. Doll said, adding that frequent dental visits are more likely to translate into long-term dental health behaviors and better general health.

“Frequent dental care is something that patients can do themselves to reduce their risk,” said Dr. File.

“Going forward, as we talk about preventive care, it’s good not to forget the teeth as part of the whole body and a component of wellness,” Dr. Doll said.

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