Diabetes is one of the most common chronic health conditions in the United States. More than 34 million Americans have diabetes, which is over 10 percent of the population. Although the symptoms of the illness are manageable with medications and lifestyle changes, it still causes a number of challenges for those who are affected.
Diabetes affects the way your body processes sugar. With type 1 diabetes, your body produces insufficient insulin, which is the hormone that regulates your blood sugar levels. Type 2 diabetes develops in response to consistently high insulin levels. Your body loses its ability to respond to insulin appropriately, leading to issues with high blood sugar.
Your blood transports oxygen, nutrients, and hormones throughout the body to keep all of your tissues healthy. Because diabetes affects your blood sugar, it can also affect your nerves, heart, and many other body parts. People with diabetes need to be watchful for warning signs of complications, but one of the most overlooked issues linked to diabetes is oral health problems.
There’s a strong connection between diabetes and oral health. If you have diabetes, you may be at an increased risk of a variety of dental problems. It’s important to be aware of this link so that you can notice the signs and symptoms of oral health issues before they become severe.
How Diabetes Increases Your Risk of Dental Problems
Your mouth is a main point of entry for many forms of bacteria. It’s very easy for harmful particles to enter your system as you eat, breathe, or touch your face. Your body typically has a strong immune system that fights off this bacteria to prevent you from getting sick.
Unfortunately, diabetes weakens your body’s immune response. The conditioned cells, which are the primary line of defense against bacteria that enters your mouth. If bacteria builds up without resistance, it could form plaque, which eventually hardens into tartar. As tartar builds up around your gum line, the substance irritates your gums. Irritation, swelling, and bleeding around the gums are known as gingivitis.
When gingivitis goes untreated, it can progress into periodontitis. This condition can lead to more serious problems as it affects the bones that support your teeth. As the bacteria eat away at your jawbone, your teeth may loosen and fall out. Periodontitis can be particularly harmful to people with diabetes because the condition slows the body’s healing, making it harder to recover from gum or bone loss.
Diabetes is also linked to cavities and tooth decay. High blood sugar levels can interact with the naturally occurring bacteria in the mouth to form plaque. This substance contains acids that attack the surface of the teeth.
Dry mouth is more common in people with diabetes, too. Not only is dry mouth uncomfortable, but it makes you more vulnerable to other dental problems, like cavities and gum disease. Saliva washes away harmful bacteria to protect your teeth and gums, so dry mouth creates an environment for bacteria to grow.
Signs and Symptoms of Oral Health Issues
Sometimes, dental problems are immediately noticeable. Your teeth or gums may start to hurt, or you may notice bleeding or severe swelling. However, like other health conditions, oral health issues often start small and worsen over time. The following are the most common signs that something may be wrong with your dental health:
- Dryness or a bad taste in the mouth
- Soreness in the mouth or jaw
- White patches
- Sensitivity to hot or cold foods and drinks
- Inflamed gums
- Pain or discomfort when biting down
How to Protect Your Teeth and Gums
Oral hygiene is important for everyone, but it’s especially necessary for people with diabetes. You should take extra care to protect your teeth and gums so that you don’t experience any complications.
The best thing you can do for your oral health is brush your teeth twice per day and floss once per day. An electric toothbrush, especially a Sonicare brush, is the most effective and efficient way to remove harmful plaque. When you brush your teeth with a manual brush, use small circular motions, and avoid brushing too hard. Brush for two minutes to remove as much bacteria and plaque as possible.Flossing is crucial to maintain oral health due to bacteria that can hide below the gumline and in between the teeth where your brush cannot reach.
Follow your doctor’s recommendations for controlling your blood sugar levels, too. This is important for overall management of your diabetes, but it also will improve your dental health. Visit the dentist at least twice per year for checkups as well. If you have or have had periodontal disease or treatment, you most likely will benefit from cleanings 3-4x/year. With regular visits, you give your dentist a chance to notice the early signs of oral health conditions and offer treatment before they become painful.
Diabetes and oral health are closely connected, but your teeth and gums don’t have to suffer. If you practice good oral hygiene, stay up-to-date on doctor and dentist visits, and watch out for signs of cavities or gum disease, you can maintain great dental health despite your diabetes.