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The Effects of Oral Health on Overall Health


The Issue

Oral health is not only important to your appearance and sense of well-being, but also to your overall health. Cavities and gum disease may contribute to many serious conditions, such as diabetes and respiratory diseases. Untreated cavities can also be painful and lead to serious infections. Studies are also currently examining whether there is a link between poor oral health and heart disease and between poor oral health and women delivering pre-term, low birth rate (PLBW) babies.


Maintaining good oral health includes keeping teeth free from cavities and preventing gum disease. Poor oral health can affect your appearance and self-esteem, and has been linked to sleeping problems, as well as behavioural and developmental problems in children. Poor oral health can also affect your ability to chew and digest food properly. Good nutrition is important to helping build strong teeth and gums that can resist disease and promote healing.

Smoking is a major risk factor for oral and dental disease, including oral cancer. Tobacco smoke is very harmful to gum tissues and other tissues in your mouth. Toxins in smoke can cause oral cancer and also damage the bone around your teeth, a major cause of tooth loss. In fact, smoking is one of the biggest risk factors for gum disease and perhaps the biggest risk factor for oral cancer.

Oral health is important at all stages of life, especially since older adults and seniors are keeping their teeth longer than ever before. However, older adults may have less access to oral care services and dental professionals because of lower incomes and/or a lack of dental insurance.

Seniors living in long-term care facilities are at particular risk of complications from poor oral health because of frailty, poor health and increased dependence on others for personal care. In many cases, oral health problems in residents go undetected until there are acute symptoms, such as pain or infection.

Health Risks Of Poor Oral Health

Gum disease is an inflammation of the gums, which may also affect the bone supporting the teeth. Plaque is a sticky colourless film of bacteria that constantly builds up, thickens and hardens on the teeth. If it is not removed by daily brushing and flossing, this plaque can harden into tartar and may contribute to infections in the gums.

Left untreated, gum disease can lead to the loss of teeth and an increased risk of more serious diseases, such as respiratory disease. The bacteria in plaque can travel from the mouth to the lungs, causing infection or aggravating existing lung conditions.

There is also a link between diabetes and gum disease. People with diabetes are more susceptible to gum disease and it can put them at greater risk of diabetic complications.

Studies are also examining whether pregnant women with poor oral health may be at a higher risk of delivering pre-term, low birth weight (PLBW) babies than women with good oral health. Babies who are pre-term or low birth weight have a higher risk of developmental complications, asthma, ear infections, birth abnormalities, behavioural difficulties and are at a higher risk of infant death. Even though this research is ongoing, it is still important for pregnant women to take care of their gums and teeth.

Minimizing Your Risk

To maintain good oral health, you should take the following steps:

  • Brush and floss your teeth daily. Using an antimicrobial mouth rinse as well can help to reduce the bacteria in your mouth.
  • Visit your dental professional regularly to have your mouth examined. See your dental professional immediately if you notice any problems.
  • Eat a healthy diet according to Eating Well with Canada's Food Guide.
  • Do not smoke. If you do smoke, make sure to visit your dental professional regularly.
  • If you are pregnant, be sure to eat healthy foods and maintain good oral health.
  • Brush your children's teeth for them, until they are able to write (not print) their own name. They should then be able to brush their own teeth with your guidance.

Health Canada's Role

The Office of the Chief Dental Officer (OCDO) is the focal point within Health Canada for oral health issues. The mandate of the office is to increase awareness of good oral habits and to improve the oral health of Canadians. As there is a link between oral health and general health, an improvement in oral health may lead to an improvement in overall general health.

The Dental Division of the First Nations and Inuit Health Branch of Health Canada (FNIHB) works to maintain and improve the oral health of First Nations and Inuit. The division delivers and manages a broad range of oral health activities including proactive disease prevention, oral health promotion and basic dental treatment services provided by regional dental therapists, contract dentists and other FNIHB staff.

Health Canada's Division of Aging and Seniors provides federal leadership and serves as a focal point for information pertaining to aging and seniors. The Division undertakes a broad range of policy, program and education activities related to seniors' health and well-being.