Your Next Dental Checkup Could Save Your Life

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by iEnhance | August 17, 2010 @ 11:00AM

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Everyone knows about the dentist's role in caring for your teeth and gums. But few know that dentists are a frontline defense against a number of other health problems. By noticing subtle preliminary symptoms that show up in the mouth, dentists are often the first to diagnose serious medical conditions and direct the patient to appropriate treatment. Additionally, researchers are now developing new diagnostic tests using saliva that will enable dentists to detect even more conditions in their early stages and have even uncovered possible links between major medical killers and gum disease. In these ways, a routine trip to the dentist can literally save your life.

Recent research has revealed a possible connection between the presence of periodontal disease, a bacterial infection of the gums, and other medical problems. The new research suggests that persons having these gum infections have an increased chance of developing heart disease later in life. Pregnant women with gum disease may have an increased tendency to deliver their baby early, and develop chronic lung problems. Both heart disease and premature birth have been tied to the body's reaction to inflammation. These reactive products are much more common in persons having a chronic infection like periodontal disease, and may be the link between the dental condition and the medical problems. Further research is necessary to confirm the findings, but the preliminary suggestion of a connection is intriguing.

Perhaps the most serious conditions that a dentist can detect are the opportunistic infections that result from a suppressed immune system, showing a patient has likely contracted AIDS. One very common infection is a viral infection known as hairy leukoplakia, which first shows up as white, raised, nonremovable stripes on the sides of the tongue. To check for this the dentist will wrap cotton gauze around the end of the tongue and gently pull it out of the mouth, looking to the sides for indication of infection. This is an opportunistic viral infection that is very rare in persons having healthy immune systems, so medical follow-up is necessary.

A second oral symptom of AIDS are small, red or purple blisters on the roof of the mouth -- an indication of Kaposi's sarcoma. Kaposi's sarcoma is a malignancy that is extremely rare, except in patients infected with HIV. Because both hairy leukoplakia and the blisters from Kaposi's are often very early signs of a compromised immune system, detection of these conditions can be the first indication of an HIV infection. As early start of anti-viral drugs is known to significantly lengthen the life of someone infected with HIV, and the knowledge will hopefully prevent further spread of the virus, early detection of the infection is an important dental service.

Dentists are also a primary means of detecting cancerous or pre-cancerous lesions in the mouth. A prevalent problem in today's society, over 30,000 people were diagnosed with oral cancer in 1998, with an estimated 8,000 expected to die from the disease. Found on the lip, tongue, mouth, or throat, the cancer occurs most frequently in people who use tobacco or abuse alcohol. However, as devastating as this disease can be, early detection is the best route to a cure, giving yet one more reason to have regular oral check-ups.

Rapidly advancing gum disease is a symptom linked to diabetes, especially in young people. Diabetes in its early stages has relatively few outward symptoms. Dentists can be instrumental in uncovering diabetes that is not being adequately controlled by diet or medical treatment. Some recent research suggests that gum disease might actually exacerbate the diabetic condition, rather than being caused by it. In either case, by getting the patient the appropriate medical attention, both the gum disease and the diabetic condition is brought under control.

Dentists don't just discover medical conditions; they can also be instrumental in uncovering psychological or social problems that have symptoms revealed in the mouth. For example, because of the self-induced vomiting, bulimics erode the enamel from the back surfaces of their upper teeth. Most common in teenage girls, dentists can contact the patient's parents and help her get the help she needs to overcome the problem. Dentists also have the important role of discovering abuse in children, through recognition of characteristic damage done to teeth and the face. By involving the proper organizations, further abuse can be avoided.

Based on some newly developed tests, dentists will have the potential of detecting even more life-threatening medical conditions in the future. Tests using saliva have been developed for Alzheimer's disease, mumps, measles, and rubella. Genetic markers for cardiac problems, hepatitis, various tumors, and a bacteria associated with stomach ulcers can also be detected in the saliva. Making such tests a routine part of the visit to the dentist is bound to increase the early detection of these and other problems.

These research results, the newly developed saliva tests, and the oral observations of symptoms of medical diseases emphasize the relationship between dental and medical conditions and the role your dentist can play in your overall health. So when making your appointment for your next check up, realize that you're not doing it just for your teeth and gums, but for your entire body. Effective treatment or cure of many serious diseases relies on early detection. Such early detection of a serious condition, leading to treatment or cure, could well begin with your next visit to the dentist's chair.

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