Research has linked gum disease to increased risk for heart attack, but more recent research also shows a link between plaque and endocarditis, an inflammation of the inner lining of the heart. The most common cause of endocarditis, in fact, is related to the same bacteria that cause cavities.
Streptococcus mutans, or S. mutans for short, is one of over 600 bacteria that call your mouth home. Some of the bacteria in your mouth are good, some bad. S. mutans is definitely one of the bad. This bacteria lives in the complex matrix of plaque, that sticky, stinky substance you try to brush and floss away. S. mutans can enter the bloodstream through a tear or cut in your gums. This might be the result of brushing and floss too aggressively, or it may occur during a dental procedure. If your immune system does not destroy the bacteria, within seconds it can travel to the heart and colonize on the heart valves. This causes the heart valves and chambers to swell, and this is bacterial endocarditis – a potentially fatal condition.
If you are a heart patient, please, please, please tell your dentist before having any dental work performed. You may need antibiotics prior to your dental procedure. Your cardiologist will make this decision based on the specifics of your situation, and should write your dental premedication prescription, if needed.
Researchers hope that a saliva test will be created to assess a patient’s risk for endocarditis. A certain protein, CNM, present in high levels in some people, allows the S. mutans bacteria to colonize in the heart. The more CNM a person has, the more prone he or she may be to endocarditis. A test that determines if a person is at increased risk would allow the dentist to administer a greater dose of antibiotics before treatment, thus making the body more adept at killing the S. mutans bacteria that enter the bloodstream.
You can reduce your risk every day with diligent brushing and flossing and the use of mouthwash. The less plaque you have in your mouth, the less risk you have of endocarditis from S. mutans bacteria.