Avoiding problems in your mouth can help prevent complications
From your head to your toes, diabetes affects every part of your body — even what’s in your mouth.
In fact, sometimes dentists are the first ones to notice symptoms of diabetes, because those symptoms include gum disease and other oral health problems. There’s glucose in your saliva, and, when blood glucose levels get too high, they can cause damage to your teeth, gums, jaw, tongue and even the insides of your cheeks.
But the link between diabetes and gum disease goes much deeper. People who have diabetes are at higher risk for gum disease than those who don’t have diabetes, in part because they have a tougher time fighting bacterial infections. Roughly 22 percent of people diagnosed with diabetes also have gum disease.
Likewise, severe gum disease can cause blood glucose levels to rise. Researchers continue to explore what causes this relationship, but we now know that people with gum disease have higher, long-term blood glucose levels; they may be at higher risk for type 2 diabetes and gestational diabetes; they have a harder time keeping type 2 diabetes under control; and, if they have both gum disease and diabetes, they are at higher risk for heart attacks, strokes, eye and kidney disease.
On the positive side, treating gum disease successfully has been shown to lower blood glucose levels. Of course, the best thing you can do for your health is to prevent gum disease from occurring in the first place by taking good care of your teeth and gums and keeping blood glucose levels under control.
The most common oral health problems related to diabetes include gingivitis (inflamed gums), periodontitis (gum disease), thrush (a fungus in the mouth), dry mouth (lack of saliva) and oral burning (a sensation inside the mouth, which goes away when blood glucose levels return to normal). These can range from mild to severe, but should never be ignored as they may signal that glucose levels remain poorly managed.
Daily brushing and flossing, along with regular cleanings by your dentist, are the best way to prevent gingivitis, which is characterized by red, swollen or bleeding gums. Electric toothbrushes are the most effective at preventing plaque and tartar from building up along the gum line. If you’re using a regular brush, dental experts recommend using one with soft bristles.
If you show signs of gingivitis, your dentist or hygienist should measure the distance between your teeth and gums and monitor it to make sure it’s not growing or becoming infected.
If left untreated, gingivitis can progress to periodontitis, which affects half the population in the United States over the age of 30 and 60 percent of those over the age of 60. According to the American Dental Association, periodontitis is one of the most common infections people develop worldwide.
Periodontitis can break down the bone and tissue that hold teeth in place, causing them to fall out. It can also cause infections, bad breath and misaligned teeth. It can be treated with a deep cleaning by your dentist, medicines and, in severe cases, with surgery.
If you have sore, white or red patches inside your mouth — you could have something called thrush, which happens when the body fails to manage a naturally occurring fungus. It often happens to people who wear dentures and may be managed by removing the dentures and cleaning them. Your dentist can also give you medicine to kill the fungus.
DEALING WITH DRY MOUTH
Dry mouth is another common problem for people with diabetes. More than just an annoyance, it raises the risk for tooth decay and gum disease, so it cannot be left untreated.
Sometimes dry mouth is a side effect of medicines, but there are also medicines your provider can give you to treat it. Mild symptoms can be helped by drinking water more often or using sugarless gum or mints to increase the saliva in your mouth and by avoiding what can contribute to dry mouth — such as tobacco, caffeine and alcoholic beverages. Dry mouth can also cause soreness, ulcers and infections.
Finally, if you have diabetes, be sure to tell your dentist and dental hygienist, who are important members of your healthcare team.