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What Your Dentist Knows About Your Health

Learn why a dental exam can reveal more than just the condition of your teeth and gums.
By Jen Uscher
WebMD Feature
Reviewed by Laura J. Martin, MD

During your routine dental check-up, your dentist can uncover important clues about your overall health.

If your tooth enamel is worn down, for example, that's a sign that you may be suffering from stress and grinding your teeth at night. Swollen and receding gums can be an early sign of diabetes, and sores in your mouth that don't heal can sometimes indicate oral cancer.

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A dentist or periodontist may be the first to notice these symptoms and can tell you which additional tests or treatments you may need. In some cases, they'll work closely with your primary care doctor to help manage your follow-up care.

"Dentists and periodontists are concerned about more than saving your teeth - they're looking at how oral health fits into your overall well-being," says Steven Offenbacher, DDS, PhD, chair of the department of periodontology and director of the Center for Oral and Systemic Diseases at the School of Dentistry at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Here are some of the most common conditions dentists look out for that can affect your oral health. 

Diabetes

People with type 1 and type 2 diabetes are more likely to develop gum disease.

That's because they may have a decreased ability to fight bacterial infections, including those that occur in the mouth. In addition, serious gum disease can make it more difficult for people with diabetes to control their blood sugar.

"When I see a patient with symptoms like frequent gum abscesses, swelling, a lot of bone loss in a short amount of time, and gum disease that doesn't respond to normal treatment, those can be signs that they have diabetes," says Sally Cram, DDS, a periodontist in Washington, D.C., and spokeswoman for the American Dental Association. "Over the years, I've had at least a dozen patients who I identified as diabetic and they didn't know it."

If your dentist suspects that you have undiagnosed diabetes, he or she will advise you to go to an endocrinologist or to your primary care doctor for testing.

Once you've been diagnosed as having prediabetes or diabetes, your dentist may send status reports to your doctor -- letting him know, for instance, if they suspect your blood sugar is not well controlled because your gum disease has been difficult to treat.

Also, your dentist or periodontist may recommend that you schedule dental exams more frequently -- for example, every three months -- if you have a history of diabetes and gum disease.

Oral Cancer

The first sign of oral cancer is often a small red or white spot or sore in the mouth. It can appear on your lips, gums, tongue, cheek lining, or in other parts of your mouth.

"Often, the patient does not notice it because it starts as a small spot toward the back of the mouth or under the tongue and they don't have any symptoms," Cram says.

Your dentist, dental hygienist, or periodontist will typically screen for oral cancer as part of a routine dental exam. By scheduling regular check-ups, you can increase the chances that any potentially cancerous or precancerous lesions will be caught early and successfully treated. Also, be sure to tell your dentist if you've noticed symptoms like a sore in your mouth that doesn't heal, a lump, or pain or numbness anywhere in your mouth or on your lips.  

How Do I Measure Up? Get the Facts Fast!

Number of Days Per Week I Floss

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Only 18.5% of Americans never floss. You are missing out on a simple way to make a big difference in the health of your mouth. Regardless of how well you brush, plaque still forms between your teeth and along your gums. Floss removes food trapped between the teeth and removes the film of bacteria that forms there before it turns to plaque, which can cause inflamed gums (gingivitis), cavities, and tooth loss. Try flossing just one tooth to get started.

You are one of 31% of Americans who don't floss daily. You are missing out on a simple way to make a big difference in the health of your mouth. Regardless of how well you brush, plaque still forms between your teeth and along your gums. Toothbrush bristles alone cannot clean effectively between these tight spaces. Flossing removes up to 80% of the film that hardens to plaque, which can cause inflamed gums (gingivitis), cavities, and tooth loss. Aim for 3 more days!

You are one of 31% of Americans who don't floss daily, but you're well on your way to making a positive impact on your teeth and gums. Regardless of how well you brush, plaque still forms between your teeth and along your gums. Toothbrush bristles alone cannot clean effectively between these tight spaces. Flossing removes up to 80% of the film that hardens to plaque, which can cause inflamed gums (gingivitis), cavities, and tooth loss. Aim for all 7 days!

Only 50.5% of Americans floss daily, and good for you that you are one of them! Regardless of how well you brush, plaque still forms between your teeth and along your gums. Toothbrush bristles alone cannot clean effectively between these tight spaces. Flossing removes up to 80% of the film that hardens to plaque, which can cause inflamed gums (gingivitis), cavities, and tooth loss. Congratulations on your good oral health habit!

SOURCES:

American Dental Association, Healthy People 2010

This tool is intended only for adults 18 and older.

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