Word of Appreciation

Updated: 02/25/2011

Dental health can deliver for expectant moms

By Jack Williams
San Diego Union-Tribune
July 19, 2004

Body and Soul

We're beginning to see the evidence collect like bacteria around chronically neglected teeth: What happens in our mouth reflects and affects what's going on in the rest of the body.

So when a savvy dental hygienist tells you she's diagnosed at least three pregnancies during routine dental checkups, you don't exactly jump out of your chair.

The telltale signs? Red, tender and very swollen gums. The condition? Pregnancy gingivitis, which some women of child-bearing age develop before they know they're brushing and flossing for two (or more).

Combine the inevitable hormonal changes of pregnancy with less-than-optimal mouth maintenance, and the result could be premature delivery and an underweight baby. A five-year University of North Carolina study showed that pregnant women with moderate to severe periodontal disease – a condition resulting from untreated gingivitis – can be seven times more likely to give birth prematurely.

Sheila Wolf, a registered dental hygienist who likes to be called "Mama Gums," comes heavily armed with such warnings. She's seen enough problem mouths in her 32-year career to be able to identify pregnancy gingivitis at the drop of a jaw.

"With some women, their pregnancy was confirmed three or four weeks later," she said.

Prevention-minded to the bone, Wolf is famous among Halloween trick-or-treaters in her San Diego neighborhood for handing out toothbrushes, dental floss and toothpaste instead of gooey goodies.

She's taught oral hygiene in a one-room schoolhouse in the Appalachian Mountains, where as many as six kids share one toothbrush. She's persuaded leading dental companies to donate supplies to impoverished children here and abroad, and she's preached the do's and don'ts of dental hygiene as a volunteer in rural Israel.

Now, thanks to a Web site (www.mamagums.com) and a recently published book ("Pregnancy and Oral Health," Radcliffe Publishing) she's carrying her gum rap to a wider audience.

"I feel I can reach more people in print than across the dental chair," she said the other day.

Wolf struck a responsive chord with women after posting oral health articles on female-oriented Web sites. "I saw that pregnant women was a niche I could reach out to," she said. So she wrote a practical, how-to book, believed to be the first of its kind, on what she calls "the critical connection between your mouth and your baby."

This is the same Sheila Wolf known to some San Diegans for her interior decorating and home-restoration skills. For now, though, her Gilda Designs business is on hold. She's writing another dental book, one she says she'll name "The Smile of Your Life." Or maybe "Keep Your Teeth and Save Your Life in 10 Minutes."

In any case, it will be filled with tips on how to avoid bacterial infections that destroy attachment fibers and supporting bone that hold teeth in the mouth.

About 15 percent of adults between 21 and 50 and 30 percent 50 and over have periodontal disease. Worst case scenario is surgery, which Wolf insists can be avoided with proper brushing, flossing and/or irrigating (squirting warm water into spaces between the teeth).

As for pregnancy gingivitis, between 50 percent and 75 percent of women show symptoms. Once the baby is delivered, the risk goes down as the hormones return to normal.

But breast-feeding moms and women on birth control pills still are more prone than the rest of us to develop gum complications.

"They retain water," Wolf said, "and that can make gum tissues more puffy and inflamed."

Jack Williams can be reached at (619) 293-1388; by fax at (619) 293-1896; or by e-mail at: jack.williams@uniontrib.com

Mama Gums