In recent years, dentists and doctors have begun to understand how periodontitis -- gum disease -- does more than cause big bills at the dentist's office. It also may trigger or exacerbate conditions like heart disease, diabetes and stroke.
That's because oral bacteria are nasty critters, and once they've infiltrated the gums, they can travel through the bloodstream and cause infections all over the body, particularly the heart valves. The situation is especially dire for diabetics, who have a weakened healing system.
But now researchers are learning that premature births also may be linked with periodontal disease, possibly shedding light on why about one out of every 10 women give birth prematurely.
In general, pregnant women are more likely to develop swollen and inflamed gums because of the sweeping hormonal changes that occur after conception. Often these changes are temporary.
The changes may be fleeting, but still very important to treat: Research is showing that women who had moderate-to-severe periodontal disease during pregnancy had an increased risk of pre-term delivery, even when factors like race, smoking and behavioral attitudes were taken into account.
It's speculated that in some women, oral bacteria not only enter the bloodstream and expose the baby to harmful bacteria, they also may alert the immune system to send "deliver baby now" signals to the uterus.
As the American Academy of Periodontology puts it, "the likely culprit is a labor-inducing chemical found in oral bacteria called prostaglandin."
While further research is needed, what's known so far indicates that one in 5 pre-term births could be prevented by treating periodontal disease, said Steven Offenbacher, a periodontics professor at the University of North Carolina School of Dentistry.
He said that some health insurance companies have taken note of this link and are offering aggressive prenatal dental care to women.
The risk of not taking care of gum disease far outweighs any potential concerns about dental treatments harming the baby, such as from X-rays, he said.
"Treatment for periodontal disease during pregnancy is a safe and effective way to improve maternal oral heath," he said.