Having good oral health doesn’t just give you a pretty smile – it’s important for keeping your whole body healthy too. “Our mouth is a reflection of the signs and symptoms of health and disease. It’s also an entry way for bacteria and toxins,” says Dr Liew Yuqin, a dentist at West Coast Dental Clinic. Here are five problems that may arise if your oral health is not at its best.

Tooth decay and diseased gums can make your mouth feel sore and even reduce your sense of smell and taste. Without the ability to chew and swallow, your nutrient consumption will be affected.

Poor nutrition will then affect your immune system and make you more prone to contracting various diseases. “Individuals with a lower immune system also have a higher risk of having gum diseases,” Dr Leo Sze Yin, a dentist from West Coast Dental Clinic, cautions. 

Gum disease and lung infections like pneumonia are linked – bacteria from the plaque and tartar on your teeth can travel to the lungs over a period of time, especially if your immune system is weak. 

“Bacteria in the respiratory tract can also worsen existing lung conditions such as emphysema, a lung disease that destroys the air sacs in your lungs, making breathing difficult,” Dr Liew adds.

Though not 100 per cent proven, there have been studies that suggest that gum health may be related to brain health. “It is thought that inflammation of the gums can contribute to inflammation of the tissues of the central nervous system, causing nerve cells to degenerate,” Dr Liew explains.

Most of the studies conducted on older adults showed that those with periodontal disease had slower response, poorer coordination and weaker memory, although more research is currently being done to understand this better.

Diabetic patients are more prone to gum disease but studies have shown that gum disease may actually contribute to diabetes as well. “This is because your body’s response to bacteria in the gums will increase insulin resistance, which then increases blood glucose levels,” Dr Leo explains.

“Poor oral health can lead to gingivitis (gum inflammation) and if left untreated, can progress to periodontitis (gum inflammation and bone loss),” says Dr Liew. The bacteria and viruses present in your mouth may then cause infection, inflammation and even blockage of blood vessels and tissues in the heart.

“Studies have also shown that an individual with gum disease is twice at risk of having a fatal heart attack compared to an individual who does not have the disease,” Dr Liew adds.

If you have an existing heart condition, you might also be at risk of developing endocarditis, an infection that causes inflammation of the inner lining of your heart. “It occurs when bacteria from another part of the body, such as the mouth, spreads through the bloodstream and clings to the damaged areas of the heart,” she explains. The bacteria can get into your bloodstream when you chew your food, brush your teeth or floss.

It’s important to know that poor oral health does not cause cardiovascular diseases, diabetes, respiratory infection and Alzheimer’s disease – getting your teeth and gums back on track will not cure you of these health conditions. “But it will reduce the risk of you developing or worsening the conditions of the various diseases,” says Dr Leo.

Floss and brush twice a day for at least two minutes, Dr Liew advises. And reduce the amount of sweet and acidic foods you eat – they can promote tooth decay. And don’t put off visiting your dentist at least twice a year to detect problems before it’s too late.

This article was originally published in Simply Her February 2015.