How Can a Respiratory Infection Cause Dental Problems in Seniors?


There’s a saying that goes, “the mouth is the gateway to the rest of the body,” and it’s true: our mouths tend to reflect an impression of our overall health and quality of life. That’s because it’s connected to the rest of our body and exhibits symptoms of dozens of different medical conditions.

One such issue that can affect the appearance and health of our mouth — especially for seniors — is respiratory disease. Whether it be COPD, asthma, pneumonia, or another form of lung disease/infection, older dental patients can tend to suffer from oral side-effects of their medical condition.

Some of the more evident oral effects of respiratory infections include: 

  • Mouth Breathing — In an effort to take in more oxygen, mouth breathing may become a habit or necessity. This process consequently results in dry mouth symptoms (xerostomia) and an imbalanced oral flora due to the dry environment. Even chronic nasal congestion and seasonal allergies can lead to mouth breathing, which as we will find out in just a moment, is a host to a number of additional side-effects. Some individuals tend to only mouth-breath at night while they’re sleeping. This can cause “cotton mouth” symptoms in the morning, where the mouth is extremely dry and sticky (more so than usual, as saliva glands tend to shut down during sleep.) Bad breath is another unwanted side-effect.
  • Dry Mouth — The soft mucous throughout our mouths is meant to stay moist and keep other oral structures well lubricated. Additionally, saliva performs a natural cleansing mechanism across the teeth, lowering acid levels. Special types of moisturizing mouth drops, rinses, and toothpastes can help with painful symptoms. Sipping on water throughout the day is also helpful to avoid dry mouth.
  • Tooth Decay — Xerostomia significantly increases the risk of tooth decay. Even in individuals whom have never had many cavities, a dry oral environment can allow decay to flourish. Seniors may need a prescription strength fluoride gel or rinse from their dentist to reduce the number of areas of decay that are in the process of developing. Because the earliest stages of decay are limited to demineralization of the enamel, preventative strategies can help to remineralize the tooth and stop the process from physically decaying into the tooth.
  • Difficulty Wearing Dentures — Red gums, sores, and thrush are common in denture wearers with an unhealthy oral environment. The presence of respiratory illness and xerostomia further complicates the issue. As a result, these seniors tend to have more trouble eating, speaking, and consequently see an impact on their digestive health and social life.
  • Side-Effects of Medication — Depending on the type of prescription being taken for a respiratory disease, it may directly affect the mouth and teeth. For example, asthmatics tend to see a higher risk of cavities due to their use of albuterol and the contact time that the medication spends on the teeth after treatment. Because eliminating the prescription is not an option, it’s necessary to limit how long it comes into contact with tooth enamel. Rinsing thoroughly with water and adding in a fluoridated mouthwash can help to counteract some of these risks.

The Dental Impact on Respiratory Diseases

Respiratory infections have an impact on oral health, but in contrast, oral health can also have a direct impact on respiratory diseases. For example, seniors with periodontal (gum) disease have a much higher risk of developing pneumonia and other infections.

This reverse-course exposure happens as a result of oral bacteria being inhaled into the lungs, or spread during medical procedures such as intubation. When the oral pathogens are transferred into the airway, we rely on our bodies to fight those bacteria off and resist infection. But seniors often have compromised immune systems, making them more susceptible to the effects of bacterial exposure.

See a Dentist for Improved Oral-Systemic Health

Regular preventative care is one of the most important steps in preventing oral disease (and related respiratory infections) in seniors. Even if you or your loved one is missing most of their teeth or wearing dentures, plan to schedule a checkup at least every six months.

Because most seniors tend to lose their dental coverage after retirement, seeing a dentist may not be in their budget. Fortunately, Cigna discount dental plan options like the ones at Cigna Dental Plans offer an affordable alternative Cigna savings program on most routine services. Talk to a representative today to learn more about the included 15-50% discounts on dental checkups and more.

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