Respiratory diseases: Do breathing issues signal complications caused by periodontal disease?

By Jannette Whisenhunt, RDH, BS, MEd, PhD

Most of us have treated patients with respiratory issues such as asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). When we treat patients who have breathing issues, we remember that we have to sit them up a little more in case they have a difficult time lying flat in the chair. Another very common thing we are familiar with is that certain inhalers, particularly those that contain steroids, can cause oral fungal infections, so patients should always rinse their mouths out after inhaler use to decrease this chance. But did you know that there is an oral-systemic link between periodontal disease and some other serious respiratory issues? Periodontal disease bacteria may contribute to a higher risk of COPD in patients with respiratory depression and to a higher risk of pneumonia in patients who are hospitalized.

You know to teach patients to take care of their oral tissues, but do you discuss the potential of periodontal disease to impact their breathing issues? I don’t think many of us think of that when we are going over our patients’ medical histories. We should focus on it more, and we should look at the whole patient and all of his or her medical issues. As dental hygiene professionals, we need to increase our knowledge about the various inflammatory diseases our patients have in order to know how these disease processes may be aggravated with the bacteria from their periodontal disease.

Patients who have advanced respiratory issues are more susceptible to infections from periodontal disease bacteria.1 Several studies have examined whether periodontal disease correlates with a higher risk of COPD, and the results have been mixed.2 Many studies have verified that there is a direct link between periodontal disease bacteria and hospital-acquired pneumonia, an infection of the lungs contracted during a stay in the hospital or a long-term care facility.3