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These 3 Oral Conditions May Signal More Serious Health Issues

An oral condition may signal more serious health issues.

Sometimes, signals of overall health issues appear in your mouth before you notice other symptoms. Such signs may appear at first only to be dental issues, and in some cases, your dentist can resolve both the oral condition and its underlying cause. However, in other cases, you may also need to consult a physician. Here are three signals to know.

1. Clenching or grinding teeth (bruxism) may signal stress or a breathing issue

If you’re stressed, you may clench or grind (brux) your teeth without realizing it, even while you’re awake. You may be aware of it, but occasionally, a dentist or hygienist is the first to notice signs of bruxism. 

It’s important to be aware of this signal and to address it. Once the issue comes to light, your dentist may recommend corrective treatment for your teeth. It’s also very important to take measures to reduce your stress, including talking to your doctor. Untreated stress can build and could lead to more serious issues, such as heart disease, high blood pressure, insomnia, and more.

In other cases, breathing issues may cause clenching and grinding during sleep. Why does this happen? While the Sleep Foundation reports that sleep-related bruxism is common in people with sleep apnea, it also stresses that there isn’t yet research on whether the two issues are connected or occur separately. However, experts suggest that it may result from mouth muscles attempting to open a narrowed airway.

“I see clenching signs in close to 100% of patients with sleep apnea,” Dr. Gio confirms.

When this occurs, treating the underlying cause and the dental condition is crucial. A narrowed airway may result in poor-quality sleep, and in extreme cases, obstructive sleep apnea, which can lead to more serious health issues—including heart disease, high blood pressure, hypertension, and stroke—if left untreated. 

Depending on the details of your condition, a specially trained dentist may be able to treat both issues at once, or you may need to consult a medical specialist as well.

Read more about bruxism and breathing issues in this blog post.

2. Chewing ice may signal an iron deficiency

Some people habitually chew ice. There are many possible reasons; it may help you control calorie consumption, avoid smoking, ease the effects of dry mouth, or—as in bruxism—manage stress. 

However, sometimes people get irresistible cravings for ice, and this is a condition known explicitly as pagophagia (a form of a more generalized condition called pica, sometimes called “picophagia”). Pagophagia may signal iron-deficiency anemia, a condition in which the body does not produce enough hemoglobin.

Hemoglobin is a protein found in blood, and it helps move oxygen throughout the body from the lungs, and carbon dioxide back to the lungs from the body’s tissues. A lack of hemoglobin can result in low energy and fatigue, among other symptoms. It may also lead to cravings for ice (and in some patients, for clay). Research suggests that chewing ice may cause small changes in the vascular system that help raise alertness.

Addressing both conditions is crucial. In addition to consulting a physician for a diagnosis and possible treatment of anemia, your dentist should examine your teeth carefully for signs of damage. A long-time habit of chewing ice may take its toll on your teeth, leading to sensitivity and possibly causing their enamel to crack, or worse, for the teeth to fracture.

Read more here about the issues associated with chewing ice.

3. Dry mouth may be a sign of one or more conditions

Dry mouth (xerostomia) can occur for several reasons. It may result from using certain medications, head and neck radiation treatments (which may cause inflamed salivary glands), drinking alcohol or using alcohol-based mouth rinses, smoking and/or vaping, or simply not drinking enough water. It may also be a side effect or sign of other illnesses. 

A blocked nose or sinuses may lead to dry mouth due to breathing through your mouth while you sleep. Depending on the unique details of your condition, your dentist may be able to evaluate your airway and possibly treat both issues, or refer you to the appropriate medical specialist for additional treatment.

Dry mouth may also result from diabetes, a condition in which blood sugar levels are too high. Uncontrolled blood sugar can lead to frequent urination and dehydration, which may ultimately cause dry mouth. Other signals of diabetes are dry skin, excessive hunger and thirst, unexplained weight loss, blurry vision, tingling and/or numbness of the hands and feet, and fatigue.

Untreated diabetes can eventually lead to eye and kidney damage, and a higher risk of heart disease and stroke. Therefore, it is important to consult a physician and a dentist if your mouth is unnaturally dry. Your physician can provide a diagnosis and prescribe appropriate treatment, while your dentist can recommend solutions to relieve the dryness in your mouth. 

In some cases, Sjögren’s syndrome causes dry mouth among people between ages 40 and 60. This autoimmune condition, in which 90% of those who develop it are women, affects fluid-secreting glands such as saliva and tear glands. 

There is no cure for Sjögren’s syndrome, but there are treatments to help alleviate its symptoms. Left unaddressed, it could lead to more serious issues with your eyesight and oral health, so it’s important to see your physician and your dentist if your mouth is unnaturally dry. 

Read more here about dry mouth.

At Winchester Dental, we are committed to helping you reach and maintain good overall and oral health! If you experience any changes in oral health—especially if you feel they might signal other issues—we encourage you to make an appointment and talk to us about your concerns. We’ll be glad to help, and to refer you to specialists as needed. 

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