The COVID-19 pandemic has affected us all, but the outcomes for those who contract the virus can be drastically different.
While many of us are already aware that elderly and immunocompromised populations tend to be harder hit, a new study from McGill University has also linked poor oral health with fatal COVID-19 outcomes. The study was published in the Journal of Clinical Periodontology.
Periodontitis is a gum disease that can lead to infections and inflammations of the gums and bones supporting the teeth. Gum disease is the most common dental problem experienced by Canadians, and if left untreated, it can eventually lead to loss of teeth.
Given that patients with severe cases of COVID-19 often experience inflammatory responses, the researchers behind the study were interested in learning whether this inflammatory gum disease could also be linked with severe COVID-19 outcomes.
Using data from the State of Qatar, the team compared the oral health records of hundreds of COVID-19 patients who had experienced various levels of severity of the disease. Health and dental records in Qatar are digitized, which helped the researchers carry out their study as quickly as possible. Qatar also provides public health and dental care to its citizens, and the records used in the study came from patients who received care through this public service.
The team adjusted for factors that could increase a patient’s risk of COVID-19 or gum disease, including age, sex, and smoking habits. Once these factors were accounted for, they compared the health and dental records of their sample participants.
Their research indicated a clear link between periodontitis and an increased risk of complications from COVID-19. Patients with gum disease were 3.5 times more likely to be admitted to intensive care units, and 8.8 times more likely to die from COVID-19, than those without gum disease.
“Looking at the conclusions of our study we can highlight the importance of good oral health in the prevention and management of COVID-19 complications,” said study co-author Belinda Nicolau, professor at McGill’s Faculty of Dentistry, in a press release.
“There is a very strong correlation between periodontitis and disease outcome.”
The team believes that pre-existing inflammation caused by gum disease could worsen the effects of inflammation related to COVID-19. Their analysis uncovered higher levels of biomarkers indicating inflammation in the blood levels of patients with gum disease, pointing to inflammation as one factor leading to COVID-19 complications.
“Periodontitis causes inflammation of the gums and, if left untreated, that inflammation can spread throughout the body,” said study co-author Wenji Cai, a PhD student in the Faculty of Dentistry.
In severe cases of COVID-19, a runaway inflammatory response can cause its own damage as the body fights the infection, leading to complications that require intubation, or even result in death. This research shows that periodontitis, and the resulting elevated inflammation present before COVID-19 infection, can exacerbate this response, said Cai.
Seven out of ten Canadians will experience gum disease in their lives, but there are steps you can take to drastically reduce your risk of severe periodontitis.
By brushing your teeth, flossing, and regularly visiting the dentist, you’re not only protecting yourself from gum disease, but also lowering your chances of developing severe complications from COVID-19.