The long, gross history of periodontal disease
SUMMARY: Fair warning: Do not read this blog post before or during a meal.
Posted: February 3, 2012
If you're like many people, you've probably been warned by your dentist about gingivitis, a disease of the gums that can make them red and swollen while giving you bad breath. But have you heard about periodontitis, which is a condition that might as well be called "gum disease's evil twin." Here, for your consideration, is the long and sometimes unappetizing history of periodontal disease.
What is it?
Periodontitis starts with gum disease. Bacteria - often the same ones that cause halitosis and cavities - infect the tissue that hold the teeth in place. With just a little neglect, it's fairly easy to get gingivitis. The gums turn red, get inflamed or feel tender and painful.
Fortunately, even a basic oral health regimen can prevent gum disease. By using specialty breath freshening products that oxygenate the palate and neutralize odors, for example, you can also eliminate bacteria and reduce your risk of gingivitis.
However, for people who don't take care of their teeth and gums, gum disease can eventually lead to a much more serious condition - namely, periodontal disease.
How long have we known about it?
Scientists didn't start studying this condition (also known as periodontitis) until the 1700s, but the disease has certainly been around for a lot longer than that. How do we know? This is an easy one: Periodontal disease slowly destroys your teeth. If you happen to be, oh, an Egyptian pharaoh or courtier with some serious dental problems, you'll probably be preserved in a sarcophagus, nasty-looking pearly whites and all. (Really, "pearly yellows" might be more accurate.)
So, when Egyptologists exhume ancient mummies, they can tell almost instantly whether or not the disinterred person had periodontal disease (and, probably, bad breath).
Consider an article recently published in the journal Practical Diabetes International. In it, a group of scientists recount digging up a 4,500-year-old male mummy in Egypt's Deir el-Barsha necropolis. The preserved body not only showed clear signs of periodontitis, but it is also considered one of the earliest provable cases of type 1 diabetes!
How did they know?
Not to put too fine a point on it: Mummies' internal organs rarely stay in very good shape. So it's not as if this sarcophagus contained a pristine, healthy-looking but otherwise deceased individual. Instead, it housed the kind of mummy you'd expect - that is, a dried-up and dusty one with its guts in little jars.
However, the enterprising Egyptologists who found these skeletal remains were still able to prove that the man almost certainly had diabetes. To do so, they just connected the dental dots.
You see, the man's skeleton showed peripheral signs of a bad case of diabetes, including osteoporosis, cavities, tooth loss and periodontal disease. And the National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research confirms that the risk of periodontitis is much higher for people with diabetes.
That's not so gross. That's the best you've got?
If those have been your thoughts so far, you're in luck. The history of the disease is full of stomach-churning discoveries.
In 1778, one Dr. Jourdain theorized that scurvy causes periodontitis (we now know that it doesn't), since in both cases a patient's gums recede, their gums fill with abscesses and, with enough time, their teeth get loose in their sockets.
In a seminal 1875 article, dentist John T. Riggs described the condition as "suppurative inflammation of the gums and alveolar process." Meaning that advanced periodontal disease causes your teeth to float in pockets of pus until they fall out. (He pretty much got it right.)
Today, we know that one of the early symptoms of periodontitis is bad breath. So stay vigilant, care for your gums, and use specialty breath fresheners regularly.