Although autoimmune diseases are often described as affecting specific organs, most are systemic conditions that can have widespread effects. An important, but rarely discussed, component of autoimmune diseases is the effect on oral health. If you have an autoimmune disease, knowing the reasons your teeth and gums are more vulnerable to damage can help you spot problems before they cause significant damage.
Higher Risk For Gum Disease
When you have an autoimmune disease, your overall risk of developing gum disease substantially increases. Many people may have a long history of teeth and gum problems, with seemingly little or no risk factors, only to be diagnosed with an autoimmune disease later in life. The underlying inflammatory processes that cause systemic problems in autoimmune diseases contribute to tissue damage and gum loss associated with gum disease. Due to the similarity in inflammatory processes, gum disease is suspected to be another form of autoimmune disease.
Comorbid Autoimmune Diseases
Sjogren's syndrome is an autoimmune disease that attacks the mucous secreting glands throughout the body, but primarily affects saliva and tear production. A primary diagnosis of Sjogren's has an obvious impact on dental health. The reduced saliva production makes you more vulnerable to cavities, gum disease and oral infections.
If you are diagnosed with another autoimmune disease, such as lupus, rheumatoid arthritis or multiple sclerosis, your likelihood of being diagnosed with Sjogren's as a secondary autoimmune disease increases. According to the American College of Rheumatology, 50% of people with a rheumatic disease are eventually diagnosed with secondary Sjogren's.
Effects Of Medications
Medications used in the management of autoimmune diseases can contribute to the higher risk of dental problems in various ways. Most medications used to control an overactive immune system work by suppressing the immune system. Theoretically, a suppressed immune system will cause a decrease in disease symptoms. This immunosuppressive effect also makes you more vulnerable to infection.
A thrush infection, which rarely occurs in healthy adults, can quickly spiral out of control in a person on immunosuppressive medications. Furthermore, there can be a lag in performing non-emergency dental work due to the fear of bacterial infections. Your dentist may want you to stop your current medications for a few weeks before minor dental work, such as cleanings or fillings, to reduce your risk of infection. Your dentist may also want to treat you with prophylactic antibiotics. Major cavities can form abscesses and spread quickly, since the immune system is not as effective at reducing bacteria.
Long-term use of medications, such as corticosteroids, poses a risk of osteoporosis and bone necrosis. Changes in the body's ability to absorb and maintain levels of calcium and vitamin D can adversely affect your teeth and gums. Your teeth and jaw can become weak with low levels of calcium and are more susceptible to breakage.
Overall Impact Of Chronic Disease
Autoimmune diseases can take a toll on your dental health purely from your ability to take care of your teeth. You may experience debilitating fatigue, joint pain or mobility problems that can compromise your self-care. If you experience limitations, consider ways you can maintain a healthy oral care routine by modifying the tools you use.
Battery-operated or rechargeable toothbrushes can be easier to maneuver if you have joint pain in your hands and wrists, or can be easier to grasp instead of a traditional toothbrush. Some motorized toothbrushes have attachments for flossing, which do not require the same dexterity as regular dental floss. Disposable, pre-pasted toothbrushes can be a useful tool for days when you are mostly confined to the bed.
There is a strong relationship between autoimmune diseases and dental problems. Although some of reasons for an increased risk are unavoidable, addressing concerns promptly can give you the best chance of avoiding significant problems. Click here for more information on what you can do to keep your dental health up.