Though most of us are unaware of it, our bodies carry a huge amount of bacteria in our mouths, respiratory systems, gastrointestinal tracts, and other areas. But these bacteria can become dangerous if they escape into your bloodstream and enter organs that are usually bacteria-free, such as your heart and your brain.
Usually, the body’s immune defenses destroy such bacteria almost instantly. But if some lodge in the tissues of your heart’s lining or valves, and evade the body’s natural defenses, serious damage can be done. This condition, called bacterial endocarditis, is a potentially deadly ailment that affects the internal lining of the heart and valves.
It is not known exactly why some people get endocarditis while others do not. However, if your heart is structurally abnormal or impaired, you are at higher risk because the bacteria that cause endocarditis are attracted to parts of the heart that are damaged, or where tissue is exposed to turbulent blood flow. This means that people with leaky heart valves or those with valves that have been newly replaced are particularly vulnerable.
Treatment for endocarditis often involves a hospital stay of weeks or even longer, while the patient is injected with strong antibiotics. That’s why it makes sense to protect your heart from this condition.
The main way to prevent endocarditis is to take penicillin (or another antibiotic) before certain medical procedures that could cause bacteria to escape into the bloodstream. During dental treatment, a common organism found in the mouth known as “viridans streptococci” may enter the bloodstream and travel to the heart. This can cause infected blood clots that are able to travel to the brain, lungs, kidney, and spleen, as well as causing damage to the heart.
Bacteria can also escape into the bloodstream during certain respiratory, skin, skeletal, and GI tract procedures.
If you have a condition that puts you at risk of developing endocarditis, and you are scheduled to undergo a medical or dental procedure (even a cleaning), it is imperative that you talk to your doctor to learn if a course of preventative medication is recommended.
Though we tend not to focus on them very much as risk factors, there are many viruses and other common ailments lurking in our environments that can cause damage to the heart.
To fully protect your heart, quitting smoking, controlling blood pressure, and lowering high cholesterol and triglycerides is not enough. You also need to guard against viruses and other diseases that can put your heart at risk so you can enjoy a long and healthy life.
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