By: Stacey Colino
It’s not fair but it’s true: Women are more susceptible to some oral health problems than men are. The reason? Hormonal changes.
For one thing, women are especially vulnerable to gum irritation and inflammation -- called gingivitis -- during pregnancy. The chances of having sore, swollen, bleeding gums also rise around menstruation, though some women’s gums are more sensitive to monthly hormonal shifts than are others.
During pregnancy, progesterone and estrogen levels rise. “This causes changes in the functioning of the immune system, giving bacteria more of a chance to grow and making inflammation more likely,” explains Dr. Yiping Han, a professor of periodontics and pathology at Case Western University School of Dental Medicine in Cleveland. “This can lead to gingivitis, a mild form of periodontal disease that’s reversible.”
By contrast, the more serious form of periodontal disease -- periodontitis -- can have lasting consequences for a woman’s oral health, pregnancy and overall health. “If a woman already has periodontal disease, it’s not uncommon to see it get worse with pregnancy,” says Han. This is especially worrisome because periodontal disease during pregnancy has been linked with preterm delivery as well as babies with low birth weight. Meanwhile, research suggests that having gum disease at any time in life is associated with an increased risk of developing atherosclerosis, heart disease and diabetes.
Hormonal changes also affect the pH and consistency of saliva, a crucial factor in oral health, says Dr. Shehzad Sheikh, a dentist at Dominion Dental Care in Sterling, Va. For example, many women experience xerostomia -- aka dry mouth -- during pregnancy and menopause. When this happens, “saliva has less ability to wash away plaque and bacteria that stick to teeth, which increases the risk of cavities,” says Sheikh.
Stacey Colino is a freelance writer specializing in health and psychological issues. Her work has appeared in The Washington Post health section and in such national magazines as Newsweek, Real Simple, Woman’s Day and Prevention. She is a frequent contributor to Oral Care and Health Daily.
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