You've no doubt heard this advice for keeping your mouth healthy your entire life: Brush, floss, and see your dentist for regular checkups.
"These are things that all of us should be doing," says Robert A. Gabbay, MD, PhD, chief medical officer at Joslin Diabetes Center in Boston. "But it's even more important for people with diabetes because the stakes are a lot higher."
Why? When you have diabetes, you're at greater risk for dental problems, including gum disease, Gabbay says. And if you don't keep your blood sugar in check, that makes you "more likely to get infections of the mouth," Gabbay says. "And infections of the mouth make it more likely that blood sugars are poorly controlled."
Diabetes can also lead to dry mouth, caused by having less saliva, which can make you more prone to cavities. And high blood sugar raises your chances of getting thrush, an often painful fungal infection that causes white or red patches in your mouth, according to the American Diabetes Association.
What are some warning signs that you should see your dentist immediately? Tooth pain, bleeding when brushing, gums pulling away from your teeth, or dentures that start to fit poorly, Gabbay says. "And of course infection -- painful, red, swollen, tender gums or pus. Even persistent bad breath can be a sign of poor oral hygiene that should be cared for."
Some people may not have any warning signs of gum disease, so be sure to see your dentist twice a year for checkups.
Here are questions to ask at your next appointment:
- How does having diabetes affect my teeth and gums?
- What kinds of mouth symptoms should I watch out for?
- What can I do to prevent dry mouth?
- Could medications be causing dry mouth?
- How often should I get my teeth checked?
Practice good habits to keep your mouth healthy. Brush twice a day with a fluoride toothpaste, floss daily, and remove and clean dentures if you wear them.
If you smoke, quit. Smoking increases your risk of getting gum disease and makes it harder to treat. Ask your dentist or doctor if you should use mouthwash.
How else can you avoid mouth problems when you have diabetes? Control your blood sugar.
"When we think about better control of blood sugar, there are four key things we keep in mind," Gabbay says. "Diet, which includes eating the right foods and having the right portion size; exercise; medication; and monitoring [regularly testing your blood sugar] to be able to tell whether things are working or not."
Another reason to brush up when you have diabetes? There seems to be a link between gum disease and heart and blood vessel disease, Gabbay says. While the cause-and-effect connection isn't clear, one recent study found that people who had a stroke were more likely to have an oral infection than those in a control group, according to the American Academy of Periodontology.
Just one more reason to take care of your pearly whites.
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