Healthy Mouth, Healthy Baby

The bacteria that cause gum disease may increase your risk for delivering prematurely.

About one of every 10 babies in the United States is born too early or too small. But precautionary dental visits might help lower these numbers. Of 124 pregnant or postpartum mothers, women who had preterm, low-birth-weight babies had more severe cases of periodontal disease than women who had babies with normal birth weights, a study at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill found. The women with periodontal disease were also seven times more likely to give birth to premature babies.

Periodontal disease is a bacterial infection, and previous research has linked bacterial infections -- particularly those in the vaginal and urinary tracts -- with premature, underweight births. Scientists believe these infections cause a rapid increase in certain fluids in the body that, in turn, induce labor. "It's not necessarily the infection itself, but the body's response to the infection that causes the premature birth," explains Maria Perno McKenzie, a dental hygienist and past president of the American Dental Hygienists' Association.

Periodontal diseases affect the gums and bones that hold teeth in the mouth. Gingivitis, the mildest form, causes gums to turn red, swell, and bleed easily. Periodontitis is a more serious stage of the disease in which bone and tissue erode. More than 75 percent of American adults over age 35 have some form of periodontal disease.

McKenzie recommends that pregnant women go to the dentist once during their pregnancy for a periodontal evaluation. Usually, a visual exam of your mouth and some probing can determine whether you have the disease.


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