The Surprising Connection Between Oral Health and COVID-19

Dr. Leonard Weiss

By Dr. Leonard Weiss, Chief Dental Officer, UnitedHealthcare

While many people are likely aware of the most common risk factors associated with complications from COVID-19, including diabetes or high blood pressure, a surprising connection has emerged with dental health. In fact, a recent study found that people with gum disease who become infected with COVID-19 are at increased risk of poor outcomes, including a greater chance of admission to the intensive care unit.

Gum disease – also known as periodontal disease – is generally preventable through proper brushing, flossing, and routine dental cleanings. Unfortunately, nearly 50% of Americans 30 or older have some form of gum disease, with the prevalence of this condition increasing by age. More broadly, good oral health is a first line of defense to help the body protect itself from infections, systemic inflammation, and various types of diseases.

While nearly everyone knows to brush during the morning and at night and to floss daily, there are numerous other ways to help maintain or improve your oral health amid COVID-19 and for years to come. Here are some strategies to consider:

Upgrade Your Toothbrush and Technique. If you are still using a manual toothbrush, now’s the time to think about an upgrade. Electric toothbrushes offer several advantages over manual brushes, with some syncing to an app to help people develop better oral health habits by providing personalized feedback, such as brushing duration, intensity, and tooth/gum coverage. Most importantly, people should brush for a full two minutes, use short, gentle strokes, and keep the head at a 45-degree angle to the gums. Once brush bristles begin to fray, it’s time for a new one To help make electric toothbrushes more affordable, some dental plans are starting to offer discounts on certain smart brushes and enabling members to earn incentives for using them.

Focus on Gum Health. While people often think about good dental health as preventing cavities and creating a white smile, maintaining or improving gum health is of equal importance. That’s because healthy gums can prevent gingivitis and eventually periodontal disease, which may cause tooth loss and contribute to an array of other health conditions, including diabetes, heart disease, and dementia. In addition to daily flossing, people can also use a water flosser, which shoots a stream of water between the teeth and can help reduce bacteria below the gum line. Another practice that research is showing may support gum health as a supplement to – but not a replacement for – brushing and flossing is oil pulling, which involves swishing around in the mouth sunflower, sesame, or coconut oil for 20 minutes, spitting out, and then rinsing with water.

Tap into Virtual Dental Care. Virtual care has become an important option for accessing health care amid the COVID-19 pandemic, including dentistry. Some dentists and dental plans are making available telephone and video consultations, which offer people a starting point for advice and guidance to help select (if needed) an appropriate setting for in-person care. Dental care ranks among the most frequently avoidable emergency room visits, with teledentistry providing a resource that may help people make more informed decisions about where to go for in-person care, such as their own dentist, another available local dentist, or a primary care physician.

By considering these tips, you may help maintain or improve your oral health, as well as contribute to your overall well-being too.

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