KEY POINTS

  • COVID patients with high levels of IL-6 have a 22 times greater chance of being placed on a ventilator
  • Bacteria from inflamed gums can be aspirated and adhere to the lung epithelium, promoting infection
  • COVID-19 expected to become the third leading cause of death in U.S., behind just heart disease and cancer

A three-month study by a Los Angeles dental surgeon and South African healthcare researcher finds a strong link between COVID-19 deaths and gum disease. The study, released Tuesday, found patients with gum disease release high levels of a harmful protein that spreads to the lungs, triggering a life-threatening respiratory crisis.

The protein, IL-6, promotes inflammation. COVID patients with high levels of IL-6 have a 22 times greater chance of being placed on a ventilator and, consequently, an increased chance of death, the study found. The authors cite Centers for Disease Control and Prevention statistics that indicate of all COVID patients on ventilators since the pandemic began, nearly 80% have died. A study published in May indicated the rate of recovery had increased to 64% as treatment methods improved.

The study by U.S. dental surgeon Dr. Shervin Molayem and South African scientist Carla Pontes suggests COVID patients with gum disease are more susceptible to a respiratory crisis known as a cytokine storm, essentially an overreaction of the body’s immune system.

“Gum disease has been linked to other breathing ailments, including pneumonia and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, so we weren’t surprised to find a link to respiratory problems with COVID-19,” Molayem said in a press release. “What shocked us was the discovery of the protein’s devastating, life-threatening impact to patients once they’re hospitalized. One tiny, inflammatory protein robbed them of their ability to breathe!”

Bacteria from inflamed gums can be aspirated and adhere to the lung epithelium, promoting infection and subsequently showing up in lung fluids. The bacteria cause secondary infections that can serve as a reservoir for the coronavirus. Mechanical ventilation decreases clearance of oral secretions, increasing the bacterial load and probability of pneumonia development.

“As the death toll keeps climbing, the CDC now predicts the virus will be among the leading causes of death in the United States, just behind heart disease and cancer,” Molayem said. “Now … we’ve confirmed periodontitis makes it even deadlier.”

The researchers said they hope their findings compel nursing homes to improve dental screening protocols, since 80% of all COVID-19 deaths have been among the elderly, and urge hospitals and emergency room doctors to check new patients for gum disease.

The study recommends improved oral hygiene, regular professional cleaning and changes in diet to reduce sugar and carb consumption. It also recommends daily doses of vitamins D3 and C, plus zinc and turmeric.

“While you can’t stop COVID-19 with your toothbrush, you may be able to reduce its severity,” said Dr. David Corradi, president of California Society of Periodontists.

The number of U.S. COVID-19 deaths passed 156,000 Tuesday afternoon, Johns Hopkins statistics showed.

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