In the February, 2010 issue of Obstetrics & Gynecology, the magazine highlighted a story about a 35 year-old women who lost her baby in the 39th week of pregnancy. The cause of the loss was linked to fusobacterium nucleatum, common bacteria found in dental plaque in our mouths.
There has previously been a connection between oral bacteria and preterm births, but this was the first proven case of oral bacteria causing stillbirth.
During pregnancy, this woman experienced excessive bleeding of her gums. Pregnancy-associated gingivitis (bleeding gums) is a common occurrence throughout pregnancy, linked to the changes in hormonal levels in the blood. But the gingivitis is caused by bacteria, and can be managed with proper dental hygiene practices like regular brushing, flossing, and dental check-ups.
Along with excessive gingivitis, the individual experienced a weakened immune system caused by a respiratory infection for three days prior to the stillbirth. This is assumed to have eased the transport of bacteria from the mouth to pass through the placenta. (Normally, this type of bacteria is removed from our system quickly by a healthy immune system.) Dr. Yiping Han, associate professor at The School of Dental Medicine at Case Western Reserve University, mentions that once the bacteria enters the placenta it is left alone to cause damage. Our immune system is told (by our brain) to ignore the placenta, so it does not attack and expel the growing fetus.
Before you get alarmed, note that pregnancy-associated gingivitis (bleeding gums during pregnancy) is not a rare encounter. Han explains that half of all pregnant women experience bleeding gums due to hormonal changes.
The take-home message is to keep good oral hygiene during pregnancy. Also, if you happen to come down with the flu or experience an illness of some kind and notice that you also have bleeding gums, dental hygiene is even more important to maintain. Regular brushing, flossing, and mouthwash will help prevent the abundance of normal bacteria in the mouth.
Claire is a twenty-three year old nursing student at Arizona State University. She currently lives in Tempe, AZ with her dog Bella.