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Tuesday, June 18, 2013
For a very long time now doctors have perceived the placenta as a very good line of defense to protect a human fetus from the elements. But we've known for some time that it isn't an impenetrable barrier. Tobacco and alcohol, for example, can travel through the mother's system and into the baby's system causing illnesses and birth defects in many cases.
Recently a surprising culprit, a bacterium known as Fusobacterium nucleatum, has been linked to premature births and stillborn infants. This is a surprising finding because F. nucleatum is associated with periodontal (gum) infections rather than genital or uterine infections. The biggest question on doctors' minds has been – how does this bacteria cause an intrauterine infection when it isn't even found in the vaginal tract?
The answer requires acceptance of a counterintuitive theory – the infection doesn't enter the womb by coming up through the genital tract, rather it makes its way down from the oral cavity. In other words, unhealthy gums can have disastrous consequences for not just your oral health but for your pregnancy.
F. nucleatum – the bacterium that causes the gum infection – is common in the oral cavity but very uncommon in the vaginal tract. Furthermore, the placenta has been perfected by nature to ward off infections and diseases. So how does the bacterium get into the womb? There are four contributing factors:
So the mechanism of how the bacteria actually gets into the womb is explained, but the question remains – why is it able to do harm when the placenta is designed specifically to protect the fetus?
It appears that F. nucleatum targets the placenta and amniotic fluid in particular when the immune system is working below full capacity. The defense systems of the womb are numerous but not infallible and in some cases the bacterium wins the battle and triggers preterm birth.
The really good thing about this new discovery is that these bacteria enter the blood stream and the womb as a result of a very preventable condition. Periodontal disease can be warded off by simply maintaining good dental hygiene:
If you follow all of these steps you will have a much better chance of keeping your gums, and your unborn baby, happy and healthy.
If you are thinking about getting pregnant or are already pregnant and concerned about your oral health, make an appointment for a checkup and cleaning with your dentist just to be sure that you don't have periodontal disease. Your dentist will make the same recommendations for good oral hygiene (regular visits, daily brushing and flossing) that he or she always does.
If you do in fact have periodontal disease the best thing to do is find out and treat it as soon as possible. Follow his or her good advice for oral hygiene to get or stay healthy and protect your teeth, gums, and your pregnancy.
Many research studies are underway to help us learn about pregnancy and oral health. Would you like to find out more about being part of this exciting research? Please visit the following links:
This article is a NetWellness exclusive.
Last Reviewed: Oct 04, 2011
Yiping Han, PhD
Professor of Periodontics
School of Dental Medicine
Case Western Reserve University