Recently, a UK man was hospitalized and nearly died from a heart condition that headlines claim was caused by a popcorn kernel lodged between his teeth. The man is a young, healthy firefighter who went to the hospital after experiencing flu-like symptoms for several weeks. After testing, the doctors diagnosed him with bacterial endocarditis, a dangerous infection of the lining of the heart that can lead to death if untreated.
As they investigated this man’s health history, the only thing he could think of that could have led to bacteria entering his bloodstream was a popcorn kernel that he was unable to remove from his gums. He states that rather than seeing a dentist, he persisted in attempting to remove it himself with any and all small objects that he could find.
How Can a Popcorn Kernel Lead to a Dangerous Heart Infection?
While doctors cannot confirm that it was indeed this popcorn kernel which caused his heart infection, they do agree that it is possible. Here’s how.
A popcorn kernel, or any foreign object (like toothpick splinters, tortilla chip shards, or other food debris), when left in the gum tissue causes an inflammatory response. This inflammation leads to increased blood supply to the site of injury, with its accompanying swelling, redness, tenderness and tendency to bleed easily. The foreign object is also a magnet for dental plaque, which contains dangerous bacteria.
Most likely, as this man was attempting to remove the popcorn kernel, he only caused more trauma to the tissues, which led to more inflammation. Severely inflamed tissue bleeds due to the presence of the increased blood supply. The trauma that allowed the bleeding also allowed bacteria to enter the bloodstream. In this man’s case, those bacteria collected in his heart lining and caused endocarditis.
Who is at Risk for Bacterial Endocarditis?
It is important to understand that not everyone is at risk for bacterial endocarditis. It is a relatively rare condition that only affects a small percentage of people. It is uncommon in people with healthy hearts. If it affected everyone with inflamed gums (because almost every person on earth experiences gingivitis at some point in his or her life), our hospitals would be full of patients with bacterial endocarditis.
Those at risk for developing bacterial endocarditis include patients (like this man) who have suffered it at any time in the past. Also at high risk are those with prosthetic heart valves, scarring of the heart valves from prior damage, and heart defects.
As you can see, most of the risk factors have to do with the heart itself, not the gums. There is one other risk factor that isn’t related to the heart: intravenous drug use with contaminated needles. When people inject drugs into their veins with dirty needles, the entrance of bacteria into the bloodstream is a given. Over time, their risk for complications multiplies.
How to Prevent Bacterial Endocarditis?
Patients with healthy hearts need only maintain that good health to reduce the risk of this rare complication.
Patients who are at risk for endocarditis due to one of the above reasons should discuss this with their dentists. Preventing infectious endocarditis is simple with a prophylactic antibiotic administration one hour before any dental treatment that could allow bacteria to enter the bloodstream. This includes professional teeth cleanings, fillings near the gumline, crowns, gum treatments, and oral surgery. Typically, your medical doctor will “order” prophylactic antibiotics before any dental treatment. We take the best care of our patients when dentists and medical doctors work together, understanding their complete medical history and any risks associated therewith.
Patients with a risk for endocarditis can also lower that risk by maintaining healthy gums. Healthy gums do not bleed, so no bacteria is able to enter the bloodstream during at-home brushing and flossing or professional teeth cleanings. Staying committed to a great oral hygiene routine lowers the number of bacteria in the mouth, prevents inflammation that causes easy bleeding, and reduces the risk of any bacteria reaching your heart due to oral care.
More Questions about Bacterial Endocarditis?
Call 972-347-1145 today to schedule a consultation with Dr. Jill and Dr. Cara. They can answer any questions you have about your specific risk areas and are happy to work with your medical doctor to ensure your safety and overall health.