Diabetes is a serious issue that can affect many aspects of your health, including that of your mouth. If you’ve received a diagnosis of diabetes, you may already be taking important steps to manage your condition. Here’s why you also need to take excellent care of your gums (with the help of your dentist and hygienist).
What is diabetes?
Diabetes is a condition that affects the way your body processes blood sugar and converts it to energy. This process requires insulin, a substance normally produced by your pancreas. You need insulin to survive. Depending on the type of diabetes you have, your body either doesn’t produce enough insulin (type 1), or doesn’t use its available insulin effectively enough (type 2). Pregnant women can sometimes develop gestational diabetes, which usually resolves after the baby is born.
In each type of the condition, the blood vessels thicken due to reduced nutrients and decreased waste removal from body tissues. In your mouth, this can weaken your gums and bone. While all diabetic patients must monitor and manage their blood sugar, eating excessive sugar doesn’t necessarily cause diabetes. However, your risk of developing diabetes depends on your age, weight, family history, and activity level.
What are the warning signs of diabetes?
The warning signs of this condition may include any of these:
- Blurry vision
- Dry skin
- Excessive hunger and/or thirst
- Excessive tiredness
- Frequent urination, especially at night
- Nausea, vomiting, or stomach pains
- Numb or tingling hands or feet
- Recurring infections
- Sores that heal slowly
- Unexplained weight loss
What oral health risks are associated with diabetes?
Because of the way diabetes affects the blood vessels, gum (periodontal) disease is one of the main oral health risks for diabetics. Higher blood sugar levels can promote bacteria growth, leading the gums and/or bone surrounding the teeth to become infected. However, it’s possible to develop gum disease without realizing it, because you may not feel any pain or discomfort during its early stages. Left untreated, gum disease can increase the risk of serious health problems such as cancer, heart attack, high blood pressure, and permanent bone or tissue loss around the teeth. If you’re diabetic, this is why it’s especially important to come in regularly for your cleanings.
Other oral health risks for diabetics include thrush (a fungal infection that causes painful white patches inside the mouth) and dry mouth.
Can gum disease also make diabetes worse?
Unfortunately, yes. Because gum disease can develop unnoticed, the infections it causes can result in increased blood sugar levels, which will make it harder to control your diabetes.
Is it important for my dentist to know that I’m diabetic?
If you’ve received a diagnosis of diabetes, it’s critically important that you let your dentist and hygienist know. They will take all the necessary steps to help you avoid developing gum disease, which may include scheduling your cleanings more frequently. And if you have diabetes AND gum disease, your dentist may also refer you to a periodontist, whose specialty is treating gum disease.
When dentists and periodontists can treat periodontal disease and get rid of infection in the gums of diabetic patients, the patients often find that their diabetes becomes more manageable. They may find it easier to control their A1C (blood glucose) levels, and they often require less insulin.
Can a dentist tell if I have undiagnosed diabetes?
While dentists cannot tell if you have undiagnosed diabetes or give you a diagnosis, they will pay close attention to the warning signs in your mouth, and will advise you to consult a physician for testing if the need is indicated.
What should I do to take the best possible care of my mouth and teeth?
There are quite a few steps you can take on your own to keep up your oral health.
- Floss! Floss your teeth daily. Your quality of life depends on it! If you find it difficult to use regular dental floss, you can find small, pre-threaded flossers at any drugstore or supermarket. For those new to flossing, this video can give you the basics.
Brush your teeth twice a day for two minutes each time, ensuring you clean all the surfaces. An electric toothbrush will give you the best results, but it’s fine to use a manual toothbrush as long as you do a thorough job.
Stop smoking and vaping. Smoking cigarettes raises your risk of developing mouth cancer and gum disease, and vaping can cause inflammation in oral cells, making it easier for infection to develop.
Drink enough water. It will keep you hydrated, protect you against dry mouth, and help protect your tooth enamel by washing away sugars and acid-forming substances.
Do the basics for good health. Be sure to get enough exercise and sleep, and to eat a healthy diet. Having good overall health helps your mouth and teeth to resist infection.
Visit your dentist and hygienist regularly. You don’t have to wonder about what’s happening in your mouth when your dentist and hygienist can perform the screenings, cleanings, exams, and treatments needed to be sure everything is healthy. Give yourself the gifts of health and peace of mind!