When you have diabetes, one of the best clues about your health stares you in the face when you look in the mirror every morning. The condition affects your teeth, gums, and general oral health in many ways.
“If left untreated, diabetes can really take a toll on your mouth,” says Alice Boghosian, DDS, spokeswoman for the American Dental Association.
When you think of a treatment for diabetes, a toothbrush isn’t the first thing that comes to mind. But there is a link.
If I don’t take care of my teeth, what happens?
“Diabetes can cause a lot of things,” Boghosian says. “First of all, it can put you at higher risk for oral infections.” These are clusters of germs that can cause pain in your mouth. They look like white or red patches on your gums, tongue, or inside your cheeks. You might even notice dark spots or holes in your teeth.
People with diabetes are also more likely to get fungal infections, such as thrush, which leaves white patches in your mouth that can turn into sores or ulcers.
“Some studies suggest that preventing gum disease can help you control your blood sugar,” Boghosian says.
What about my gums?
“The most common effect of diabetes is swollen and bleeding gums,” Boghosian says. She notes that about 1 in 5 people with diabetes have gum disease.
If it's not treated, gum disease can cause your blood sugar to rise, and that makes your diabetes harder to manage. “Since [diabetes] makes you more susceptible to infections, you’re less able to fight bacteria that invade the gums,” Boghosian says. “It’s a vicious cycle.”
The reverse is also true. If your blood sugar is out of control because of an infection in your mouth, then treating that infection will tame your blood sugar.
Does diabetes affect my teeth?
“Yes,” Boghosian says. “High blood sugar or some medications can cause you to have less saliva, so your mouth can feel dry. Without saliva to cleanse and rinse your teeth, you’re at a much higher risk for cavities.”
Diabetes also makes it take longer to heal wounds, including those from oral surgery or having a tooth removed.
Can my dentist tell if my diabetes is under control?
Maybe. A dentist can tell if something is not right within your mouth. They would not give you a blood sugar test or check on your diabetes, but if your gums bleed and are not the right color, they will see that. “I’m not a physician. I can’t diagnose diabetes. But I can tell if something isn’t right beyond the scope of dental health,” Boghosian says.
So what can I do?
First, manage your diabetes. “Keep your blood sugar levels under control, choose a healthy diet, stay active,” Boghosian says. “If your body is healthy it will help you fight the oral and fungal infections, and maybe even increase the amount of saliva in your mouth.”
Don’t smoke. Aside from their many dangers, cigarettes and cigars also contribute to dry mouth, gum disease, and tooth decay.
If you wear a full or partial denture, clean it thoroughly each day to reduce bacteria.
“And of course, brush twice a day with fluoride toothpaste and a soft toothbrush,” Boghosian says. You can swish with antibacterial mouthwash, too. Also, “floss correctly once a day. See your dentist for regular checkups.”