Well-known side effects of diabetes include circulation problems and neuropathy. But did you know that diabetes can seriously affect the health of your teeth and gums? Moreover, your oral health can also affect the course of your diabetes.
How Diabetes and Dental Condition Interact
The most common dental problem is tooth decay, which can lead to cavities, abscesses, tooth pain, and tooth loss. Decay is caused by the actions of bacteria that live naturally in your mouth. They secrete acid, which eats away at the tooth enamel, allowing cavities and other problems to develop. In normal numbers and with regular cleaning of the teeth, these bacteria are harmless.
Bacteria become overactive when they have lots to feed on in the mouth. This is why brushing and flossing to remove food debris is so important. In diabetic persons, especially when the diabetes is not in control, the bacteria have another food source: sugar. If you have diabetes, just as your blood has more glucose in it, so does your saliva. This glucose becomes another food source for the bacteria.
Even more serious than tooth decay, diabetes can also affect the health of the gums. Gum disease, or gingivitis, occurs when plaque buildup on the teeth and under the gums irritates the gums, causing them to become swollen, tender, and bleed easily. They also begin to retract from the base of the teeth, exposing vulnerable areas to tooth decay. Puffy gums and frequent bleeding give oral bacteria more places to collect and more to feed on.
Left untreated, gingivitis can develop into periodontal disease, which is a heightened inflammation of the gums. The gums can become permanently damaged and teeth can loosen or even fall out. And just like infections in other places in the body, periodontal disease can make it harder to control your diabetes.
What You Can Do to Protect Your Teeth and Your Health
Dental problems are not inevitable as a diabetes patient, any more than they are inevitable for persons in perfect health. Many of the steps you need to take to guard your oral health are simply basic dental hygiene, with a few extra considerations.
- Daily dental hygiene is even more crucial if you have diabetes. Brush your teeth at least two times per day and floss at least once. Make sure you are brushing and flossing correctly so as not to damage your tooth enamel. You can ask your dentist or dental hygienist for a demonstration. If you feel embarrassed to ask, there are videos and tutorials online.
- Commit to close management of your diabetes. The more you can keep your insulin and glucose levels steady, the better it is for your mouth and teeth along with the rest of your body.
- Watch for symptoms of gum disease so it can be caught early. Do your gums bleed easily when you brush or floss? Do you gums appear darker red rather than pink? Are gums receding from your teeth (can you see more of the base of your teeth)? Do your teeth feel loose or does your bite seem to meet differently? If you notice any of these symptoms, make a dental appointment or tell the dentist at your next regular checkup.
- Schedule regular dental checkups and cleanings. You should go to the dentist at least twice per year. If you tend to have more severe plaque buildup or develop gum disease, your dentist may need to see your more often, every 3-4 months.
- Inform your dentist, and any dental specialist, that you have diabetes. Remind the dentist or technician who updates your file on each visit. If you have developed any diabetic complications, keep them advised of that too. Make sure your dentist has contact information for main doctor who treats your diabetes.
- Don’t smoke or use other tobacco products like chewing tobacco or snuff. Smoking and other tobacco use can worsen all problems associated with tooth and gum disease, and hinders your ability to stay healthy with diabetes as well!
If your diabetes is not in good control, postpone any dental procedures that are not absolute emergencies, due to the higher risk of infections or other complications.