Oral Bacteria Can Slow the Body’s Ability to Heal

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Of the little nuisances the come up in life, few things are as frustrating as accidentally biting your cheek or tongue. Not only do these accidental little bites hurt, they also seem to take forever to heal. Part of the reason why is due to oral bacteria.

While your mouth may contain billions of bacteria that cover your cheeks, gums and teeth, the number of actual species is far less, usually just several hundred. With so many microbes in the mouth, they have to play some role in how quickly an oral wound heals. Yet, researchers don’t fully understand what that role may actually be.

The difficulty lies with attempting to observe what happens inside of the mouth. Without severely affecting our daily routines, the process is nearly impossible. This is where the use of laboratory models comes into play. In 2013, researchers were successful developing a laboratory model that allowed them to examine just how the cells in the mouth work in conjuncture with the different types of bacteria found in the mouth. This provided the opportunity to begin testing what happens to a tongue or cheek when injured.

A Glimpse Inside

Researchers soon discovered that, as expected, specific microbial species did slow down the healing process. Not unexpectedly, the majority of species that caused this slow down were pathogenic in nature, including several that are known to cause the development of gingivitis. The overall effect was a slowing of the healing process that ranged from 20 to 75 percent. This meant the time needed to heal an oral wound could be three times longer when compared to a similar injury suffered in another part of the body. Even more troubling, researchers determined that the bacteria didn’t even need to be living in order to cause a reduction in healing.

How dead cells could slow down the healing process was a mystery with few obvious answers. One possible theory was that certain chemicals involved in communication of bacteria helped provide a defense against potentially harmful conditions.

A recent study conducted by a team of researchers from Belgium may have found evidence that suggests this is indeed the case. Using constructed models, researchers were able to demonstrate how bacterial signals seemed to interfere with the healing process. Researchers also discovered how this ability to communicate could be stopped with the help of certain types of good oral bacteria.

The experiments involved the growth of oral cells in a lab that were used to simulate a human cheek. The cheek cells were then scratched to cause injury. In the control scenario, the wound was left on its own to heal. As for the tests, the damage cells were exposed to roughly 1 million bacteria. After a day, researchers examined how much healing had occurred.

As expected, the control wounds healed to about 60 percent over the 24-hour period. This natural healing rate would allow the wound to heal within 3 days. When bacteria were introduced, the healing rate decreased. In some instances, the level dropped down to 20 percent. This meant that a wound would need three times as long to heal, extending a 3-day period into almost 10 days.

However, researchers did find a surprising result. In the case of a few types of bacteria known to be friendly to the long-term health of our teeth and gums, there was an opposite effect. These types of bacteria actually helped improve the healing rate in the body.

When examining why this occurred, researchers hypothesized that it was do to a lack of nutrients for the healing cells. To prove this theory, researchers examined glucose levels, the most common food source of health cells, to see if they could uncover any trends. Indeed, they found that the bacteria responsible for the greatest delay in healing also used up the most glucose. In comparison, the bacteria that help stimulate healing actually increased the glucose levels in the mouth. In other words, these bacteria were giving up their food source in order to promote increased healing.

Glucose, however, couldn’t be the only reason dead cells had the ability to cause delays. The authors assumed chemical signals present even after bacteria died were responsible. Basically, these signals informed other bacteria about harmful conditions in the mouth, which caused a reduction to the healing process as the cells took time to deal with the unsavory oral environment.

The Need For a Healthy Mouth

In light of this research, there seems to be good reason to keep healthy microbes in the mouth for moments when we accidently wound the oral cavity. To stay prepared, make sure to practice quality oral hygiene such as brushing and flossing on a daily basis. Also, you should make an effort to avoid products that contain triclosan.

If you have any questions about the best ways to protect the health of your teeth and gums, feel free to ask Oregon City dentist for families. Dr. Brett Johnson, during your next appointment with Oregon City Dentistry.