According to a recent study by California State University, taking good care of your teeth could potentially save your life. Researchers found that, for regular medical patients, good oral hygiene was key for preventing hospital-acquired pneumonia. In a hospital setting, when patients already have suppressed or weak immune systems, such a disease can often be fatal.
The study brought new focus to non-ventilatory hospital-acquired pneumonia, which had previously been largely ignored and unreported because most hospitals tend to focus on ventilator patients, since they have a higher risk of contracting the disease.
The yearlong study was prompted by Barbara Quinn, a clinical nurse specialist who noticed that there was a number of patients acquiring pneumonia who weren’t on ventilators. Quinn contacted a CSUS nursing professor, Dian Baker, who investigated the problem with funding from Sutton Medical Center.
Various factors contributed to non-ventilator hospital-acquired pneumonia, such as the patient’s diagnosis and their age, but oral hygiene turned out to be a surprising game changer. Patients who are sick and tired often become less stringent about brushing and flossing their teeth. This allows bacteria to build up in their mouth. Bacteria can replicate quickly in the mouth, and pneumonia is often present in hospital environments — and with a compromised immune system, it is possible for bacteria to easily travel from the mouth of the patient to the lungs.
Over time, this quick buildup of bacteria could lead to various other oral health problems, as well. Poor oral hygiene, systemic diseases and irregular dental cleanings are all contributing factors to gum disease.
“We as a nursing profession were not aware that oral hygiene was so important for patients not on ventilators,” said Baker. “I tell all my friends now before they go to the hospital to see the dentist before they go, and brush their teeth four times a day.”
Sutter staff created a new oral-care protocol for the hospital as part of a pilot program to limit the contraction of pneumonia and other diseases. Part of their approach included distributing ADA-recommended toothbrushes, as well as giving new options for patients who had difficulty brushing their teeth. The changes saw a 37% decrease in non-ventilatory hospital-acquired pneumonia over that period.
Right now, hospitals are only required to monitor ventilator patients for possible pneumonia, which Quinn and Baker hope to change with the results of their study.