Premature Labor: Can Periodontal Disease Cause Preterm Birth?

I am four months pregnant. I have been diagnosed with periodontal disease. My dentist said this could lead to a low birth weight baby or preterm labor. Is this true?

Question:

Periodontal (gum) disease is an infection of the gums and bone, caused by plaque,a sticky film of bacteria that adheres to teeth. Plaque forms constantly on teeth and can build up if it is not removed through daily and regular professional cleaning. The bacteria in plaque produce toxins, that can irritate your gums. Three out of four adults are affected by periodontal disease some time in their lives. Pregnant women are especially susceptible to periodontal disease.

It is not completely understood how periodontal disease affects pregnancy. Research suggests that the bacteria that cause inflammation in the gums can actually get into the bloodstream and target the fetus, potentially leading to premature labor and low birth weight babies.

Pregnant women who have moderate to severe periodontal disease may be seven times more likely to deliver a premature child, according to a five-year study conducted at the University of North Carolina, than women with healthy gums.

Researchers evaluated periodontal disease in more than 850 women before and after they gave birth and discovered that periodontal disease may be responsible for up to 18 percent of preterm births. Periodontal disease may be as detrimental to pregnancy as smoking or alcohol abuse.

Pregnant diabetics face a greater risk from severe periodontal disease than non-diabetic pregnant women, according to a study in the December 2001 issue of the Journal of Periodontology. Periodontal disease may lead to premature labor, and this response may be even more commen in women with diabetes.

Premature birth is the major casue of newborn death, placing a baby at significiant risk of developing serious and lasting health problems.

Research is now underway to learn if treating pregnant women's periodontal disease cuts their risk of preterm birth.

The best strategy is to prevent the development of periodontal disease. For women who are planning to get pregnant, a thorough periodontal exam and appropriate treatment should begin prior to pregnancy. For women who are already pregnant, meticulous oral hygiene and frequent professional cleanings may be helpful.

Reference:

Offenbacher et al., "Periodontitis: A potential risk factor for spontaneous preterm birth" Compendium of Continuing Education in Dentistry (1999) 19(1):32-39.

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