So far, your pregnancy weight gain is healthy, you're eating nutritious foods, exercising regularly, and you haven't missed a prenatal checkup. It seems you've got it all covered, right? Well, maybe not. Have you seen your dentist recently? A significant risk factor for your baby's health may be lurking in a surprising place—your smile.
Periodontal disease, a condition that affects over 35 million Americans, has been linked to complications during pregnancy. Many women aren't aware of the potential risks associated with oral infections. Taking the time to educate yourself about periodontal disease and treatment is a valuable investment in your health, as well as the health of your unborn baby.
What is Periodontal Disease?
Periodontal disease, commonly known as gum disease, is a chronic bacterial infection that affects the tissues that surround the teeth, including the gums and bones supporting the teeth. According to the American Dental Association (ADA), gum diseases, including gingivitis and periodontitis, are serious infections that, left untreated, can lead to tooth loss.
Periodontal disease begins when the bacteria in plaque—the sticky, colorless film that constantly forms on your teeth—causes the gums to become inflamed. If the bacteria grow unchecked and the infection of the gums spreads, your teeth could become loose, fall out, or need to be extracted. But the dangers associated with gum disease become vastly more important for expectant moms.
Pregnancy Risks Associated with Gum Disease
Several recent studies published in the Journal of Periodontology have found a strong link between gum disease and pregnancy complications. Dr. Steven Offenbacher, a professor at the University of North Carolina School of Dentistry and an expert on periodontal disease and pregnancy, says these studies have "shown that mothers who have periodontal disease are more likely to have pregnancy complications. Particularly, it increases the risk of preterm delivery and babies with low birth weight."
Women with gum disease are at an increased risk of delivering at less than 37 weeks of gestation, says Dr. Offenbacher, stressing that the medical community is not yet sure exactly why this is. "It seems to be independent of traditional obstetric risk factors; we're unsure of the underlying mechanisms at this point. But we believe some of the organisms of the infections in the oral cavity may be exposed to the fetus in utero." This is suggested by the presence of antibodies to the infection in the babies' cord and placental blood, which implies that the organism has spread from the mother to the fetus during pregnancy.