A recent study by the Virginia Commonwealth University School of Medicine, Richmond revealed that patients who received regular, twice-a-year dental cleanings had lower instances of pneumonia than those who did not receive dental care regularly. We asked Dr. Stephen Hill of Allen, TX about his impressions of these findings.

Pneumonia is defined as a bacterial, fungal or viral infection that causes an inflammation of the air sacs of lungs. These air sacs, called "alveoli" become filled with fluid or pus, making it difficult to breathe. In an otherwise healthy patient, pneumonia can often be successfully treated- however, in many patients it can be fatal. Pneumonia most commonly appears in medically vulnerable communities, such as in older people, those with lung disease, and those with compromised immune systems from conditions such as AIDS or cancer. It is estimated that of the nearly 1 million Americans who develop pneumonia each year, fifty thousand of those individuals will die from the disease.

The study utilized data taken from patients who participated in the Medical Expenditure Panel Survey (MEPS). This survey is conducted by the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality and follows participants over a two-year period. Participants of the survey are interviewed about their health habits- including access to healthcare, insurance, healthcare costs, and their overall health status. What it found was that patients who visited the dentist less than once a year had an almost 50% higher risk of developing bacterial pneumonia than those who visited the dentist more than once a year- and those who had never visited a dentist had a nearly 90% higher risk of developing bacterial pneumonia.

So what does a dentist think about these findings? Hill says the connection makes sense. "We already know that the mouth is full of bacteria- in fact, at any one time our mouth can have up to 72 different strains of bacteria present." But while most of that bacteria is harmless (and some of it is even considered "good" bacteria), according to Hill, "If left to its own devices, the bad bacteria can cause some serious damage." Thankfully, regular dental cleanings can eliminate most of it. "That’s one of the main reasons we do cleanings in the first place."

According to Hill, there are two common types of "bad" oral bacteria- streptococcus mutans, and porphyromonas gingivalis (or p. gingivalis). Streptococcus mutans is the more common of the two. This is the bacteria that feeds on sugars and starches in your mouth and ultimately causes tooth decay. P. gingivalis, on the other hand, is less common- but is much more serious. Says Hill, "If left untreated, p. gingivalis can lead to periodontitis, which can cause loss of gum, teeth, and in severe cases, portions of your jaw bone. By eliminating these bacteria, you are not only protecting your teeth, but you are making it harder for these bacteria to develop into bacterial pneumonia." As for what you can do to reduce your risk of bacterial pneumonia between cleanings, Hill recommends that in addition to receiving regular cleanings by your dentist, you can help cut your pneumonia risk at home with good oral care from regularly brushing and flossing your teeth. Hill also stresses that this study, while helpful in highlighting the relationship between oral bacteria and bacterial pneumonia, does not apply to viral or fungal pneumonia, which have different root-causes and may or may not be affected by oral care.