Need another reason to brush and floss? Gum disease may increase cancer risk.


A study published in the journal Cancer Research this past week looked at the oral health of over 120,000 people in the U.S. for 10 years and found a 21% increase in the risk of esophageal cancer when people had gum disease caused by certain kinds of bacteria. 


National Library of Medicine – HealthDay summary:

Journal article abstract:

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Gum disease does more than affect the mouth. It’s been linked to increased risk of heart disease, stroke, and diabetes and from the results of the study above, it appears that esophageal cancer can be added to the list.

Although cancer of the esophagus is not a common cancer, it is a deadly one. Just as with any cancer, chances of survival are greater if it’s found early.  Overall, the five year survival rate for esophageal cancer is 18%.  The chances of survival are better, 41%, if it’s found and treated early, and worse -  5%, if it’s found after it has spread. (American Cancer Society, 2017)  The trouble is, people don’t know they have it until the tumor has grown large enough to causes symptoms – trouble swallowing, weight loss, lack of appetite, chest pain or a burning sensation, among the most common (Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, 2017)

Although periodontal disease (gum disease) was found to be a risk factor for esophageal cancer in the study above, further studies need to be done to confirm the finding. However, preventing gum disease is something we should all do, not only to possibly reduce our chances of esophageal cancer, but for overall good health.

So, what exactly is gum disease? Gum disease is an infection of the gums caused by an accumulation of bacteria in plaque, the sticky film that covers the teeth and gums. When plaque is not regularly removed, that is -  when we don’t brush and floss, it hardens. Hardened plaque is called tartar. When not removed, the bacteria in the plaque and tartar cause gingivitis or an inflammation of the gums. Gingivitis causes the gum swelling, redness and bleeding. This initial type of gum disease can easily be treated with a professional cleaning and good oral care at home.

If gingivitis is not treated, it can progress to a more serious type of gum disease – periodontitis. When this happened, the gums pull away from the teeth leaving spaces or pockets around them that become infected. The infection spreads below the gum line which brings the toxins released by the bacteria into contact with bone and connective tissue that hold the teeth in place. If this isn’t treated, the bones, gums and other structures that support the teeth, are destroyed and the teeth become loose, and sometimes have to be removed. (National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research, 2013)

Treatment depends on the extent of infection but includes medication, surgery to remove tartar and reduce the size of the pockets around the teeth, and in cases where there is bone loss, a bone and/or tissue graft.

While gum disease can be treated, it makes more sense to prevent it in the first place. To this end, The National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research and the American Dental Association (  offer this advice:

  1. Brush twice a day for 2 minutes with fluoride toothpaste and a soft-bristle brush.
  2. Replace your toothbrush every 3-4 months
  3. Regularly remove plaque from between teeth (use dental floss, interdental brushes,  “water-pick” or an oral irrigating flosser.)
  4. Have regular dental check-ups and professional cleanings
  5. Don’t smoke

For more information

American Cancer Society
Cancer Facts and Figures

Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center
Esophageal Cancer

American Dental Association
Brushing your teeth

American Academy of Periodontology
Types of gum disease

National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial  Research
Periodontal gum disease



Joanna Hayden, PhD, CHES is the principal of Associates for Health Education and Behavior, LLC, in Sparta, a practice focused on improving health through education. Her office offers individual and group health education, and individual health behavior change guidance.  For more information please see  To contact Dr. Hayden, email her

The opinions expressed herein are the writer's alone, and do not reflect the opinions of or anyone who works for is not responsible for the accuracy of any of the information supplied by the writer.

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