Gum disease affects over 50% of adults and, while cases in children and adolescents are less prevalent, there is still a risk. In this age of COVID-19, the ramifications can be even more widespread: gum diseases make COVID-19 patients three times more likely to develop severe symptoms and experience complications. As we find out more about this disease and how it can cause such a severe response in some people, dentists are discovering that preventing and treating gum disease can be one way to promote great dental health and prevent COVID-19 complications!
Basics of Gum Disease
Gum disease, also called periodontitis, is an infection of the soft tissue of the gums that can lead to pain, receding gums, and eventually tooth and bone loss. It is caused by poor dental hygiene that allows for plaque (a sticky film of bacteria, saliva, food, and fluids) to build up and eventually harden on teeth (called tartar). Bacteria in plaque and tartar produce toxins that damage gums, teeth, and underlying bone. Our immune systems respond to toxins through a few mechanisms, including inflammation which is what leads to the characteristic red and swollen gums.
How is Gum Disease Linked to COVID-19?
Cells in your body release cytokines to communicate with each other as part of the immune response. Cytokines are small messenger proteins that can help regulate inflammation, and their purpose is to help the body fight infection and stay healthy. Sometimes, however, the body’s cytokines can cause too many inflammatory signals to be released and inflammation spreads to other parts of the body.
You may have heard that certain chronic inflammatory conditions, such as cardiovascular diseases and asthma, are risk factors for COVID-19. This is because excessive inflammation is linked to the development of severe COVID-19, specifically from a cytokine called interleukin-6 (IL-6). Pre-existing high levels of inflammation (which occurs at the highest levels in chronic inflammatory diseases) and IL-6 in the blood is associated with respiratory failure and the need for ventilation in those who are infected with the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus.
The link between gum disease and the risk of developing more severe COVID-19 symptoms is along the same lines as other inflammatory conditions. Gum disease can elevate levels of cytokine IL-6 both in the mouth and elsewhere in the body, increasing the risk of widespread inflammation. So, overall function and immune response aren’t at their peak performance when the body does come in contact with the virus and it begins to spread in the body. On top of that, cytokine IL-6 has been known to interact in interesting ways with other viruses too, and can actually exacerbate viral diseases. This happens because the cytokines can initially help the virus evade the immune system’s response, which leads to the body producing even more IL-6 later on to try to fight the infection. More cytokine IL-6 flooding your system can cause a sharp increase in inflammation, paving the way for more severe COVID-19 symptoms.
How COVID-19 Can Affect Children
While it is thankfully true that children often have a lower risk of getting sick from SARS-CoV-2 and generally experience a milder illness, children can still get sick and spread coronavirus to others. Cardiovascular diseases, autoimmune diseases, or asthma can increase risk as well. However, even in children without underlying conditions, contracting COVID-19 is still associated with a multisystem inflammatory system response in children, which makes the day-to-day focus on preventing other sources of inflammation in the body, such as gum disease, all the more important.
Risk Factors for Developing Gum Disease
While genetics is one potential risk factor for gum disease, most causes come from individual health factors or lifestyle choices. Health factors that increase risk can include diabetes, autoimmune or systemic diseases, and certain medications. Notably, asthma and chronic allergies can also cause gum disease due to a tendency to breathe more through the mouth (which dries out the gums and teeth, removing beneficial saliva) and the potential effect inhalers can have on the mouth. Teeth grinding or clenching, especially at night, can also cause harm to your gums, jaw, and mouth and contribute to increased risk.
Puberty can also increase the risk of gum disease. Hormonal fluctuations and changes often increase blood flow to the gums, making them more sensitive. Food, plaque, and bacteria may more easily irritate the gums, leading to swelling, inflammation, and over time, periodontitis.
Poor dental care is another risk factor for gum disease. Inadequate or infrequent brushing and flossing can lead to plaque and tartar buildup, which is the direct cause of gum disease. This can also affect children or teens with braces if they don’t take the time to properly care for their mouths. A poor diet can also affect periodontal health, as a diet high in sugars and starches creates a lot of food for harmful bacteria.
Gum Disease Symptoms
While some children with milder forms of gum disease, such as gingivitis, may have no symptoms at all, others develop signs very early on. Some of the initial symptoms that most patients notice first are red, swollen, and generally irritated gums, and bleeding easily while brushing and flossing. Some may experience tooth sensitivity, pain while chewing, or bad breath that doesn’t go away even after brushing.
Once the disease has progressed, gums may begin to recede. Teeth can look longer than they used to, or there may appear to be more space between teeth than there previously was. In severe cases, teeth may even become loose. Pus may show up in between teeth, and some patients notice a change in their jaw alignment and bite.
Treatment and Prevention
Good dental hygiene is a huge part of treating and preventing periodontitis! Properly brushing teeth twice a day with the right fluoride toothpaste and flossing once daily for you and your child is a very important first step! Additionally, visiting the dentist regularly for cleanings is a necessary part of both treatment and prevention. At Jungle Roots, we keep an eye out for all signs of gum disease and can identify and treat very early stages of gum disease, even before symptoms may develop or you know that there is a problem. If gum disease is apparent, we may recommend a deep cleaning to remove plaque and tartar underneath the gum. Some patients may also benefit from either an antibiotic cream or pill to help fight bacteria or infection.
Keeping Your Family Safe from Gum Disease and COVID-19
Helping our patients avoid, prevent, and treat gum disease is among our top priorities here at Jungle Roots, especially knowing that it can be linked to COVID-19. Our office is currently open, and we have implemented a number of protocols to protect your family from COVID-19. So, if you have concerns about gum disease, questions about how to properly care for your child’s teeth, or want to schedule a consultation or cleaning, please reach out! We are happy to help and desire to see your family have great health.
At Jungle Roots Children’s Dentistry & Orthodontics, we strive to provide the highest comprehensive pediatric and orthodontic dental care in a unique, fun-filled environment staffed by a team of caring, energetic professionals. We believe the establishment of a “dental home” at an early age is the key to a lifetime of positive visits to the dentist.
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