The surprising link between dental health and COVID-19

Although 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 link emerged with dental health. In fact, a recent study found that people with gum disease who are infected with COVID-19 are at increased risk for poor outcomes, including a greater chance of admission to the intensive care unit.

Gum disease — also known as periodontal disease — is generally preventable with proper brushing, flossing, and routine dental cleanings. Unfortunately, almost 50% of Americans 30 or older having some form of gum disease, the prevalence of this disease increasing with age. More broadly, good oral health is a first line of defense in helping the body protect itself against infection, systemic inflammation and various types of diseases.

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Although almost everyone knows how to brush their teeth in the morning and evening and floss daily, there are many other ways to maintain or improve your oral health during COVID-19 and for years to come. Here are some strategies to consider:

Improve your toothbrush and your technique. If you’re still using a manual toothbrush, now’s the time to think about upgrading. Electric toothbrushes offer several advantages over manuals, with some syncing with an app to help people develop better oral health habits by providing personalized feedback including brushing duration, coverage, and tooth intensity /gums. More importantly, people should brush their teeth for two full minutes, use short, gentle strokes, and keep their head at a 45 degree angle towards the gums. To help make electric toothbrushes more affordable, some dental plans are starting to offer discounts on certain smart brushes and allow members to earn incentives for using them.

Focus on gum health. While people often think of good dental health as preventing cavities and creating a white smile, maintaining or improving gum health is of equal importance. Indeed, healthy gums can prevent gingivitis and possibly periodontal disease, which can lead to tooth loss and contribute to a range 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 jet of water between the teeth and can help reduce bacteria below the gum line. It is also important to avoid tobacco, because smokers are twice as likely gum disease as a non-smoker and limiting alcohol intake, which has been linked to various oral health issues.

Assess the need for a night watchman. Partly due to the COVID-19 pandemic, more than 70% of dentists surveyed reported an increase in patients suffering from teeth grinding and clenching, conditions often associated with stress. Some people may do this in their sleep and not be aware of the problem. Over time, this condition — known as bruxism — can contribute to tooth damage, receding gums, and ultimately tooth loss. To help prevent this, a dentist can identify the signs of this condition and create a personalized night guard to reduce nighttime grinding.

Access virtual dental care. Virtual care has become an important option for accessing healthcare amid the COVID-19 pandemic, including for dentistry. Some dentists and dental plans offer phone and video consultations, which give people a starting point for advice and guidance to help select (if needed) an appropriate setting for in-person care. Dental care is one of the the most frequently preventable emergency room visitstele-dentistry providing a resource that can help people make more informed decisions about where to go for in-person care, such as their own dentist, another local dentist available, or a primary care physician*.

Schedule regular cleanings. Even if you practice an impeccable oral care routine at home, regular dental cleanings are also crucial, ideally every six months. Indeed, a regular visit to the dentist can help remove the plaque that tends to accumulate over time, while helping to detect potential problems and recommend treatments. While it’s always important to consult state and local guides related to the spread of COVID-19, the American Dental Association recommends people to continue routine oral health care, including dental exams, cleanings and preventive care. To help, many dental plans include up to two annual cleanings with no cost sharing.

By heeding these tips, you can help maintain or improve your oral health, while also contributing to your overall well-being.

*Not all dental services are eligible for virtual dental care.

Dr. Leonard Weiss is Chief Dental Officer at UnitedHealthcare.

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