Bad breath may not be the only oral hygiene factor affecting your sex life – there is clinical evidence that erectile dysfunction may come about because of gum disease and poor oral hygiene.
Professor Londi Shangase from the South African Dental Association said the two conditions may seem worlds apart, but they are linked by inflammation – our body's natural response to being attacked.
Gum disease is a bacterial infection of the structures that support the teeth, said Shangase. "The bacteria grows and breeds in the plaque that accumulates on your teeth if you don't brush regularly and properly."
The same bacteria that inflame the gums enter the bloodstream and "inflame blood vessels around the body", she said.
Because the arteries in the penile organs are comparatively small, "they tend to clog up easily", especially when bacteria irritate them. Blood is then "restricted from entering this area".
A rush of blood is what causes an erection.
"This means that the process that gives the erection is disenabled," said Shangase.
She said the process that blocks the arteries in the penis could result in clogged blood vessels all around the body. Blocked arteries is one of the main causes of heart disease.
"Smoking, stress, high blood cholesterol levels and diabetes have been identified as the traditional risk factors. However, not all patients with cardiovascular disease exhibit these," said Shangase.
She believes that gum disease should also be seriously considered to be among the risk factors for heart disease.
"In South Africa, 14.7% of deaths are linked to cardiovascular disease, said Shangase.
By treating gum disease, the costs of which are minimal, doctors could ultimately reduce fatalities or bring down the costs of treating cardiovascular disease. "That would be a huge benefit to the country," said Shangase.
The dental association estimates that gum disease affects more than three in 10 people worldwide – mostly in low to medium income countries such as South Africa.
"This could be an underestimation. Because gum disease is not painful, the patient is likely to seek treatment for something else – like a decaying tooth – and coincidentally you discover the gum disease," Shangase said.
Gum disease and HIV
There are different types of gum disease but one of the most severe is the "necrotising form". This is where the patient's gums actually rot.
This specific form of the disease is most commonly seen in those whose immune systems are weak, such as HIV-infected people, said Shangase. "A few years ago, I published a paper on this form of gum disease. Of all the patients who presented with this form of gum disease, 70% – when tested – were HIV positive."
Shangase said that this finding should inform HIV policy.
"This type of gum disease can be used as an indicator and must raise suspicion on the clinician's side – if you've got this, the chances are quite high that you are HIV positive."
According to the dental association dentists and doctors should work "hand in hand" to combat conditions such as erectile dysfunction, heart disease and HIV.
"Gone are the days where the mouth is seen as just a mouth and not connected to the body," Shangase said. "After all, we treat the whole patient."
Gums blazing: Are you at risk?
You may have gum disease if:
• Your gums bleed when you brush your teeth;
• Your gums are swollen; or
• Your gums have changed in colour from the ordinary pink to a reddish tone.
If you are experiencing any of the above symptoms consult your dental practitioner.
The primary cause of gum disease relates to the bacteria that live within the plaque build-up on teeth.
These bacteria initially cause the disease, but the spread and severity depends on the level of other risks the patient is exposed to – particularly those who are smokers, have a compromised immune system, or have diabetes. – South African Dental Association