Dental issues in pregnant women put babies at risk

By Cara DeGette
Colorado Public News

Dentists are warning pregnant women to take care of their teeth, for the sake of their babies.

Pregnant women with cavities and gum disease have an increased risk of having premature and low-birth weight babies. They also have a good chance of passing on their bacteria and bad habits to their children.

Over the past 10-15 years, numerous studies have determined that poor dental hygiene and gum disease lead to many other health problems, said Aurora periodontist Pamela McClain, who is president of the American Academy of Periodontology. Gum disease can lead to periodontal disease, or inflammation, infection and decay of the bone and tendons around the teeth. The studies have connected periodontal disease to increased risks for cardiovascular disease, Alzheimer’s disease and even pancreatic cancer, she said.

Research has also focused on women who are expecting.

“Many, many studies have shown that high levels of [the hormone] progesterone puts pregnant women at a higher risk and more susceptible to gum diseases,” McClain said. “Pregnant women who have periodontitis are two to four times more likely to have pre-term, low birthrate babies.”

“We all have bacteria in our mouths,” she said. However, some bacteria attach to teeth and become plaque, and if that plaque is not removed, it can lead to inflammation of the gums, or gingivitis.

Untreated, the bacteria ultimately start destroying the bones in your mouth – and that is not reversible, said McClain.

McClain said the percentage of women with poor oral hygiene giving birth to babies prematurely is relatively small. However, she notes that underweight and premature babies are far more likely to have mothers with periodontal disease.

Women with dental problems also easily pass their germs onto their babies. Jeff Kahl, a Colorado Springs pediatric dentist, says the costs of treating children ages 0-3 years old with dental problems has skyrocketed in recent years. New mothers can easily transfer their own bacteria to their babies in a myriad of ways, including kissing them, sharing utensils – anything that enables the mother to transfer saliva to the baby.

“If we can screen pregnant women who are at the highest risk, and treat them, the probability they will transmit [bacteria] to their children is much lower,” Kahl said.

A bill being considered by the Colorado legislature this year would extend dental health care to women on Medicaid who are pregnant and have just given birth. The bill, sponsored by Sen. Jeanne Nicholson (D-Black Hawk), passed the Senate Health and Human Services committee in late March, with Democrats voting in favor and Republicans opposed.

“It’s going to be a tough road,” said Kahl, who supports the effort. “The Democrats think it’s the greatest thing in the world. The Republicans we talk to think it’s great but say they have a problem with the price tag.”

The bill’s estimated cost is $3.5 million in the first year and $10.3 million next year according to legislative council staff. Bills for new programs that cost money often have a hard time in the legislature.

Kahl and McClain argue the investment would be saved over the long term by preventing future expensive dental treatments for children and their mothers. They also cite the huge savings on medical costs related to premature and low-weight babies. However, Kahl concedes that saving money by providing preventative treatments can be a tough sell.

“You’re talking about kids who aren’t even born yet,” he said.

Kahl recommends that pregnant women should make sure they are as healthy as possible, and advises would-be mothers on the following:
— As soon as possible after learning you are pregnant, get a dental check-up.
— Take care of any cavities you may have.
— Brush your teeth after eating.
— Floss your teeth daily.
— Consider using a prescription mouth rinse, with the medication Chlorhexidine, to minimize bacteria build-up in your mouth.


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