Dental health and your heart

Safe heart surgery requires a healthy mouth

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Most heart surgery patients need to have dental clearance before surgery to prevent bacteria from traveling from the mouth to the bloodstream, which can compromise his or her health.

Healthy teeth and gums are important for reasons other than your smile. Many people who are in need of surgery — and heart surgery, in particular — might have to delay a surgical procedure for weeks, or even months, depending on their dental health. Because dental health and your heart go hand in hand, most cases involving heart surgery require a patient to have dental clearance before surgery.

That’s because bacteria present in the mouth can travel to the bloodstream and compromise an individual’s health. It’s important that a patient be free of any acute infection, including gum disease (gingivitis in its early stages and periodontal disease in later stages), bleeding of the gums, tooth abscess or any soreness in the mouth.

A patient should have a dental radiograph (a type of X-ray), recommended by his or her dentist, to determine treatment need prior to surgery. This is a useful diagnostic tool to help your dentist detect damage and disease not visible during a regular dental exam. Depending on your dental history, getting cleared for surgery may require one appointment or several trips to your dentist. If you have routine cleanings (typically twice a year) and an annual dental examination, your dental health is likely good.

Preventive measures

According to the American Dental Association (ADA), you can reduce the chance of developing dental decay, gum inflammation and oral infections such as abscess formation by taking good care of your teeth and gums. Optimal dental care includes:

  • Brushing teeth twice a day with an ADA-accepted fluoride toothpaste
  • Cleaning between teeth daily with floss
  • Eating a balanced diet and limiting between-meal snacks
  • Visiting your dentist regularly for oral examinations and professional cleanings

Warning signs

According to the Academy of General Dentistry, gum disease affects 80 percent of American adults and often the condition goes undiagnosed. Warning signs that you may have gum disease include:

  • Red, tender or swollen gums
  • Bleeding gums while brushing or flossing
  • Gums that seem to be pulling away from your teeth
  • Chronic bad breath or a bad taste in your mouth
  • Teeth that are loose or separating from each other

Take the next step:

  • Be sure to schedule an appointment with your dentist every six months.

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Bonita D. Neighbors, DDS, is director of Community Dental Center, University of Michigan School of Dentistry. She received her Doctor of Dental Surgery degree from U-M in 1986 and completed her residency at the U-M Department of Hospital Dentistry in 1987. Dr. Neighbors is passionate about working with other safety net healthcare workers in Washtenaw County to provide interdisciplinary holistic healthcare.


Frankel-informal-vertical-sigThe University of Michigan Samuel and Jean Frankel Cardiovascular Center is a top-ranked heart and heart surgery program among Michigan hospitals. To learn more, visit our website at umcvc.org.