Women who want to have a baby should look after their oral health, a fertility expert told a meeting in Sweden yesterday. During the meeting, delegates heard about preliminary research that found for the first time, from when she starts trying to conceive, a woman's chances of falling pregnant can depend on how well she looks after her teeth and gums.

Roger Hart, a professor at the University of Western Australia in Perth, told the annual meeting of the European Society of Human Reproduction and Embryology in Stockholm, that the effect of gum disease on conception is about the same order of magnitude as the effect of obesity.

Hart, who is Professor of Reproductive Medicine at the University and Medical Director of Fertility Specialists of Western Australia, said their study was the first to be published that investigates links between gum disease and women's chances of getting pregnant, so it is the:

"... first report to suggest that gum disease might be one of several factors that could be modified to improve the chances of a pregnancy."

He says women who want to become pregnant should visit their dentist and brush their teeth regularly.

For their research, Hart and colleagues analyzed data on over 3,400 pregnant women from Western Australia who were taking part in a study called SMILE that was investigating how treatment for gum disease affects pregnancy outcomes.

They found that women with gum disease took on average two months longer to conceive than women without gum disease (seven months instead of five).

Non-Caucasian women appeared to be the group most affected: they were likely to take more than 12 months to become pregnant if they had gum disease.

Gum disease, also known as periodontal disease, is where the gums and supporting tissue are chronically infected and inflamed.

Our mouths are full of bacteria, which stick to mucus and bits of food and form a sticky "plaque" on our teeth. Brushing and flossing gets rid of plaque, but if this is not done regularly, then the plaque goes hard and turns into "tartar", that is much harder to get rid of. You should then visit the dentist or hygienist to have it removed properly.

If you leave it too long before removing plaque and tartar, the bacteria causes an inflammation called "gingivitis", where the gums appear red and swollen, and bleed. At this stage, daily brushing and flossing and visits to the dentist can restore oral health. But eventually, if not attended to, the disease moves to a stage where tissue and bone are affected: this is periodontitis, which literally means "inflammation around the tooth".

In periodontitis the gums pull away from the teeth and little pockets develop that become infected. The bacteria and plaque starts to grow below the gum line, causing the immune system to respond. Toxins from the bacteria and immune system activity start to attack the tissue and bone that hold teeth in place, and they become loose.

But these destructive agents also get into the bloodstream, which may explain why gum disease is linked to increased risk of a number of chronic diseases such as type 2 diabetes, heart disease, respiratory and kidney disease, and also, miscarriage and premature birth.

About one in ten people is thought to have severe periodontal disease. The best way to prevent it is to brush and floss your teeth regularly.

Hart suggests the reason the non-Caucasian women were the most affected was because they appeared to have the highest level of inflammatory response when suffering from gum disease.

He also said that receiving treatment for gum disease while pregnant does not affect the health of the foetus or the mother.

Source : ESHRE 2011 Stockholm.

Written by: Catharine Paddock, PhD