NEW YORK (Reuters Health) - Pregnant women can safely be treated for gum infections without having to worry about their baby’s health, according to a new study.
The concern among dentists had been that treating the problem could cause bacteria to get into the mothers’ bloodstream, where they could harm babies’ development.
Gum disease — caused by a bacterial infection that breaks down gum tissue and can cause tooth loss and serious health problems — is a particular problem during pregnancy.
Hormonal changes appear to make a pregnant woman more susceptible to developing it, yet the standard antibiotic-based therapy is not recommended because it stains the baby’s teeth.
What’s more, dentists have shied away from aggressive teeth-cleaning, which is also effective, out of fears they’d help the bacteria get into the bloodstream. In principle, that could harm the brain development of the fetus.
But those fears are baseless, the new study shows.
“Women can be confident that it’s not going to have clinically meaningful effects on their child’s development,” said Dr. Bryan Michalowicz, whose findings are published in the journal Pediatrics.
Michalowicz, a dentist at the University of Minnesota School of Dentistry in Minneapolis, and his colleagues tested more than 400 two-year-olds, who’d been born to mothers with gum disease.
Half the mothers had been treated with aggressive teeth-cleaning — called scaling and planing — during pregnancy, while the rest had not.
The researchers found the kids did just as well on language, motor and mental tests regardless of whether their mothers had been treated.
On the other hand, treatment didn’t seem to benefit the kids either. That was the researchers’ original hypothesis, because earlier studies have linked gum disease to developmental delays.
“We asked the question, does treatment of periodontal disease in pregnant women improve child development?” said Michalowicz. “We found it doesn’t.”
The researchers did find a slight increase in toddlers’ test scores when the mothers’ gum disease improved. But the effect was so small it doesn’t have any practical consequences, they say.
Nonetheless, he said, “As a dentist I think that improving oral health is a goal in its own right.”
Dr. Marjorie Jeffcoat, a dentist at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia who wasn’t involved in the study, said it couldn’t rule out that treatment might benefit the baby in some cases.
“You need to have a higher risk population in order to draw a conclusion,” she told Reuters Health. “I wouldn’t jump to the conclusion that we should let periodontal disease run rampant in pregnant women.”
But, she added, women should try to maintain good oral health in the first place.
“They need to use a soft toothbrush and floss the right way,” wrapping the floss around the tooth, she said. “The first goal with almost all dental disease is prevention, prevention, prevention.”
SOURCE: bit.ly/e3YPjA Pediatrics, April 11, 2011.