Scientists have discovered a link between life-threatening coronavirus infection and gum disease in new research published Thursday.
Gum disease has known links to heart disease and chronic lung disease, both of which also put people at risk of becoming seriously ill or dying from COVID-19.
Researchers in California and Brazil found in a review of studies that COVID-19 patients with a high anti-inflammatory immune protein called interleukin-6 (IL-6) indicated that they suffered from gum disease much more often needed fans to maintain them alive.
While IL-6 is involved in many diseases, previous studies have shown that deep cleansing and treatments for gum disease can lower levels of the anti-inflammatory protein, the researchers said.
Inflammatory IL-6 proteins flood the site of gum disease, but can then enter the bloodstream and travel to the lungs, increasing inflammation there as well, increasing the risks of life-threatening coronavirus infection, a new study claims
For their paper to be published soon in the Journal of the California Dental Association, the researchers previously discussed work on gum disease, IL-6, and several other diseases, including coronavirus.
The main finding came from a German newspaper published in April.
It was found that COVID-19 patients with high IL-6 levels (over 80 picograms per milliliter) were much more likely to develop the life-threatening respiratory distress syndrome associated with the infection and need to be hospitalized be included.
Dr. Shervin Maloyem, a dental surgeon in Los Angeles, California, believes that many patients with these high levels of IL-6 already had gum disease when they contracted coronavirus.
Gum disease is caused by bacteria that settle in the gums.
In an effort to fight the invaders, the body increases the production of several immune cells, including IL-6.
But those who are genetically inclined to have higher levels of the protein are also at greater risk for chronic gum disease.
“IL-6 is one of the worst,” said Dr. Maloyem at DailyMail.com.
“It’s been involved in bone destruction, tissue destruction, and when it gets into the blood vessels, it keeps cells in the blood vessels from dilating as much,” which can contribute to high blood pressure and an overworked heart.
Inflammatory cytokines from gum disease can reach the lungs through one of several routes, making the organs more vulnerable, severe COVID-19, a diagram from the study shows
Cardiac specialists have long recognized that gum disease is a risk factor for and can help predict cardiovascular disease.
IL-6 belongs to a group of immune cells called cytokines and plays a role in the same type of ‘cytokine storm’ that often proves fatal for critically ill coronavirus patients.
It also signals other immune cells to activate, and together these well-intentioned molecules can lead to uncontrollable inflammation, both in the gums and in the lungs.
And Dr. Maloyem says that IL-6, which is sent to the gums to fight bacteria, can travel there – through the bloodstream or even inhalation – to the lungs, causing higher base inflammation in them.
This process is considered one of the factors underlying the link between chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and gum disease.
But Dr. Maloyem says it may also play a role in coronavirus patients, with inflammation in their airways increasing before they contract SARS-CoV-2, so the two diseases act as an inflammatory one-two.
IL-K levels are also high in people with obesity, diabetes, the elderly, or cardiovascular disease – all groups at high risk for coronavirus.
The study of Dr. Maloyem did not directly investigate the effects of gum disease or its treatment on the degree of coronavirus infection or death, but he says that addressing the periodontal problem could nevertheless lower the risks.
“We know that through thorough cleaning alone, patients will lower their IL-6 levels by about five picograms per milliliter,” he said.
Since some people are genetically predisposed to have higher levels of IL-6 (and are more vulnerable to gum disease), he also advises having genetic or blood tests done to find out if you may be at increased risk for COVID-19.
“When you get sick [from COVD-19] do I get cytokine storm? is that linked to my genetics? If so, then I might want to wear a mask or stay at home more, “said Dr. Maloyem.
And of course, good oral hygiene can do no harm and can help keep the IL-6 levels low by preventing gum disease.