When you think about what contributes to your overall health, you may automatically think about your physical and mental wellbeing. It may surprise you to know that your oral health has a significant impact on your overall health, too.

“Oral health affects the whole person, including their physical and emotional wellbeing,” said Dr. Adrienne Rulon, DDS, Dental Director at Northern Counties Health Care.

Poor oral health can have serious consequences, including painful and expensive health conditions. It can lead to plaque buildup on your teeth, which can develop into gum disease. If left untreated, Rulon said gum disease can lead to periodontal disease, a disease of the gums and bone that surrounds teeth, which research studies have linked to heart disease and diabetes.

Tooth decay is the most common chronic disease in children and adults in the US, according to Healthy People 2030, the nation’s 10-year plan for addressing the most critical public health priorities and challenges. Advanced stages of tooth decay can cause sore and bleeding gums, tooth loss, and possible swelling, which Rulon said could be life threatening. The pain caused by gum disease can be so excruciating, she said, that it could make it impossible to do normal tasks or eat nutritional foods.

“When teeth, gums, and bone are damaged due to decay and periodontal disease, it can affect what types of foods a person chooses, often leading to more processed food consumption and decreased nutritional value,” she said.

Rulon said there are several ways we can take care of our oral health.

One way is through our nutritional habits. Snacks like crackers, chips and goldfish contain certain carbohydrates that turn into sugar when they break down, which contribute to cavities. Rulon also said drinking a sugary or acidic beverage like coffee or lemon water can weaken enamel- the outer part of your tooth- and can cause bacteria to grow in your mouth that can lead to tooth decay and gum disease.

Rulon said sugary or acidic foods and drinks should be consumed in a meal in one sitting rather than as snacks or sipping a beverage throughout the day, to lessen the impact on our teeth. Alternative snacks that are healthier for our teeth include fruits, vegetables, nuts, nut butters, and cheese.

Having good brushing and flossing habits is another way we can take care of our oral health. Rulon recommended brushing your teeth twice a day– cheek side, top, and tongue side - with a soft tooth brush for about two minutes. She recommended flossing before brushing, so that brushing clears all the cavity-causing bacteria away.

We can also take better care of our oral health by scheduling regular dentist visits. Rulon said when Gov. Phil Scott’s initial “Stay Home, Stay Safe” order was issued in March 2020 to try to slow the spread of the coronavirus, dental treatment was delayed due to state and federal guidance that dentists limit care to emergent and urgent patients only as well as limit procedures that could be done. Since the order was lifted, Rulon said patients are no longer delaying care due to COVID.

“The opposite is happening. More dental patients are in need of care than providers available to deliver it,” Rulon said.

Although our state has seen a recent surge in the Delta variant, the predominant COVID-19 variant in the United States that is more contagious than previous COVID-19 variants, Rulon said this is one of the “safest times ever” to be a dental patient and to seek dental care.

Rulon said dental offices have always been on the forefront of infection control policies even prior to COVID-19, but since the pandemic dental offices at Northern Counties Health Care have added hospital-grade air purifiers to all treatment rooms and the waiting room, and all clinical staff wear respirators, masks, visors, and gowns.

“It is important to not delay care, as small problems are much easier to fix with more predictable results and easier appointments for patients,” she said.

COVID-19 hasn’t been the only reason people don’t receive dental care. One major reason nearly 25 percent of the nation’s population has to delay or even forego dental care is because they don’t have dental insurance.

Dental insurance is most often offered through employers, but people who don’t have that option either need to pay out of pocket for dental expenses or they need to purchase a private dental plan, which can be costly.

Medicare generally doesn’t cover dental benefits, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation (KFF), except under limited circumstances. For Medicare beneficiaries who do have dental coverage, the dental benefits that are provided vary widely and are often limited.

Many states don’t provide adequate Medicaid adult dental benefits, according to the American Dental Association (ADA). Medicaid dental coverage varies by state and not all forms of dental care are covered.

Since oral health is linked to a person’s overall health, expanded dental coverage can reduce overall medical costs. According to the ADA, studies have shown that dental coverage significantly reduces costly emergency department visits for dental conditions. Potential approaches the KFF offers to improve dental coverage for Medicare beneficiaries include adding dental benefits to Medicare Part B or creating a voluntary dental benefit under a new part of Medicare. The ADA suggests that oral health access for Medicaid beneficiaries can be addressed through federal policy changes that make comprehensive oral health coverage for adults a permanent part of the Medicaid program for all states. This would bolster state budgets to implement oral health coverage.

Taking care of your oral health can help prevent the onset of more serious conditions and diseases. If you need care and don’t have a dental home, Rulon said you can call your local dental office to find out if they are taking on new patients.

We want to hear from you! Are there health topics or issues that you’d like to read about in an upcoming Vital Signs? Email us your suggestions at vitalsigns@nvrh.org, or mail them to NVRH, c/o Katie Bocchino, P.O. Box 905, St. Johnsbury, VT, 05819.

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