Bacteria that live in the mouth can cause a far bigger health risk than dental plaque if they are able to get into the bloodstream, research has shown.
Scientists from the University of Bristol studied the behaviour of these bugs after they escape from the mouth and found they have a highly dangerous way of protecting themselves from medical treatment if not kept at bay with regular brushing and flossing.
The study expands upon the well-known link between the Streptococcus bacteria and heart disease and strokes, facilitated by the bug’s other main effect: receding gums.
Blood from this condition carries the organisms around the body, where they release a protein which causes platelets in the bloodstream to join around them in a protective clot which increases the risk of heart attack.
“When the platelets clump together they completely encase the bacteria,” said study leader Professor Howard Jenkinson. “This provides a protective cover not only from the immune system, but also from antibiotics that might be used to treat infection.
“Unfortunately, as well as helping out the bacteria, platelet clumping can cause small blood clots, growths on the heart valves, or inflammation of blood vessels that can block the blood supply to the heart and brain.”
The bacteria are usually confined to ‘biofilm’ communities in the mouth, which cause gum disease and plaque.
At the Society for General Microbiology’s (SGM) autumn meeting, Prof Jenkinson said: “Poor dental hygiene can lead to bleeding gums, providing bacteria with an escape route into the bloodstream, where they can initiate blood clots leading to heart disease.
“People need to be aware that as well as keeping a check on their diet, blood pressure, cholesterol and fitness levels, they also need to maintain good dental hygiene to minimise their risk of heart problems.”