Back to main page

Back to Practical Caregiving Columns


Practical Caregiving

Poor Dental Care Can Lead to Many Physical Problems

By Jean Donahue

When I was in college, there was a very popular preacher we all looked forward to listening to, even though he seemed extremely old to us. He had a real ability to connect with college students. One Sunday he was talking about his health. He had been having heart problems for three years and had resigned himself to the fact that he would always have to be careful and not do anything that would cause a heart attack.

Thatís when he changed dentists.

The new dentist found an infected tooth, which he pulled. Of course, the preacher had to take antibiotics to get rid of the infection. To the preacher's surprise, his heart problems vanished. No, it wasn't a "miracle;" the doctor had asked him about his teeth, but he was having regular check-ups and thought they were okay. The point he was making that Sunday morning years ago is as important for all of us today as it was for him then: your teeth can cause serious health problems in other parts of your body if they are infected.

On March 5, CNN's Gary Nurenberg reported that a boy in Maryland developed an infected tooth, but had trouble getting care because his family didnít have insurance. As a result, the tooth infection spread to his brain and he died.

I had an infected tooth recently. I had felt signs that something was wrong, but I didnít know what was wrong. I went to the doctor for a sinus infection a couple of times and was put on antibiotics, but the infection returned. By the time I realized it was a problem with my tooth, I had another sinus infection.

Most of us donít think a toothache can turn into something as horrible as it did for the young boy in Maryland, but it can. Thatís the ugly truth -- it can.

An infected tooth is the result of a bacterial infection. The infection enters your blood stream and can cause problems in other areas of your body. You need an antibiotic to get rid of it. The longer you let it spread through your body, the greater your chance is of having some other problem.

Iíve been searching the Internet, including medical sites, and found that we are all in danger if we have problems with our gums or our teeth. Iíll explain a few of the problems that can develop, but first letís look at some of the problems that develop as a person is older or ill -- or both.

The gums and cheeks lose their elasticity and the muscles become weaker as we age. The amount of saliva produced is reduced. This produces a dry mouth, which makes it more difficult to chew and digest food. The gums recede, which is sometimes caused by gum disease. If a person has dentures, they need to be replaced every 3-5 years because the supporting bone shrinks. These things make it easier for the elderly or ill to develop an infection, either in the gum or tooth.

Some symptoms of a tooth infection are sensitivity to heat or cold, sensitivity to pressure when biting something, fever, swelling in your face or cheek, redness or swelling of the gums, tender and/or swollen lymph nodes under your jaw or in your neck. If the abscess ruptures, you will have a sudden gush of fluid in your mouth that is foul smelling and foul tasting.

Symptoms of gum problems include receding gums, food easily caught beneath the gum, or a small abscess under the gums.

In the February 2007 issue of Diabetes Care, doctors reported on recent studies that indicated an infection in the gums is associated with the development of kidney disease in patients with type 2 diabetes. Another study indicated that having periodontal, or gum, disease can boost the risk of getting pancreatic cancer. However, pancreatic cancer is rare and gum disease is common, so donít go ballistic over this one.

It sounds easy to do what you need to do to take care of your own teeth, but taking care of the teeth of your loved one becomes much more difficult -- especially when you are the one brushing their teeth. Your loved one may not be able to tell you they have an infected tooth. They may say they have an earache, or they canít chew their food, or something else.

Also, make sure they have their teeth, gums and mouth cleaned and well taken care of. If a toothbrush is too short to effectively clean their teeth, tape a tongue depressor to it to make it longer. Floss their teeth. Rinse their mouth with a mouthwash that meets their needs. If they eat something sweet, rinse their mouth afterwards. And, find a way to have their routine checkup by a dentist (always a scheduling pain, but very important).

I hope I havenít alarmed you too much -- but have alarmed you just enough to care for your loved one and yourself. Most people who get an infected tooth have it taken care of by a dentist and never experience any of these problems. The key is to have a problem fixed quickly and take any antibiotic needed until it is completely gone.