According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 29 million American adults suffer from diabetes. And an additional 86 million adults have prediabetes. Without a healthy lifestyle, 15 to 30 percent of prediabetic people will develop the condition within 5 years.
During its early stages, diabetes can cause symptoms such as excessive thirst, fatigue, weight loss, and blurred vision. If left unchecked, diabetes can damage nearly every organ in the body, including the heart, eyes, kidneys, and nerves.
But did you know that diabetes can affect your mouth as well?
Common Oral Problems Associated with Diabetes
Diabetes puts you at risk for a variety of dental problems. Some of the most common include the following:
Dental Caries (Cavities)
Your mouth houses millions of bacteria. When you eat carbohydrates, the bacteria digest the sugars from these foods and create a sticky film on your teeth-plaque. The acids in the plaque erode your teeth’s enamel, leaving them vulnerable to decay.
Those with higher blood sugar levels supply bacteria with a greater amount of sugars and starches, resulting in more acid and more tooth decay.
Gingivitis (Early Gum Disease)
Higher blood sugar levels make it difficult for your body to fight the bacteria in your mouth. And if you don’t remove the plaque buildup, it will harden into tartar, or calculus. The longer the calculus remains on your teeth, the more the substance irritates the gums along the base of your teeth. This can lead to swelling, inflammation, redness, and even bleeding.
Periodontitis (Advanced Gum Disease)
If left untreated, gingivitis progresses into periodontitis, or advanced gum disease. Periodontitis causes all the same symptoms as gingivitis, as well as:
- Gums that pull away from the teeth
- Chronic bad breath
- Loose or shifting teeth
- Changes in bite or denture fitting
- Pus between teeth and gums
Because diabetes slows circulation and reduces the body’s ability to fight infection, individuals with diabetes are more likely to contract this condition. In fact, studies show that people with poor blood sugar control suffer gum disease more often and more severely than those with good control.
In addition to housing a multitude of bacteria, your mouth harbors a fungus known as candida albicans. Typically the immune system keeps small amounts of this fungus in check. But because diabetes weakens the immune system, the fungus may start to grow out of control.
As the fungus grows, you may develop white lesions or patches on your tongue, inner cheeks, and soft tissues of your mouth. These patches can turn into open sores, which may bleed when scraped.
Saliva plays a key role in maintaining your oral health. It regulates your mouth’s pH levels, and it deposits important minerals on your teeth to protect your enamel. Furthermore, saliva controls the level and activity of bacteria in your mouth. And it provides lubrication, so the friction between your teeth and soft tissues won’t cause painful sores.
Unfortunately, many individuals suffering from diabetes also experience dry mouth, or xerostomia. This condition occurs when the salivary glands cannot release enough saliva to fight bacteria or protect the mouth. In addition to causing a dry, rough feeling in the mouth and cracked lips, this condition can increase the likelihood of experiencing tooth decay and gum disease.
How to Care for Your Teeth If You Have Diabetes
Because diabetes leads to a variety of health conditions, you should do everything you can to control it and its side effects. You’ll want to follow your doctor’s instructions for managing your blood sugar levels, and you’ll want to report any signs of gum disease to your dentist.
Once you have your blood sugar levels in check, use the following tips to keep your mouth healthy:
- Brush twice a day. Brush your teeth after you wake up in the morning and again before you go to sleep at night. Ideally, you’ll want to brush 30 minutes after meals and snacks as well. Use a soft-bristled toothbrush to avoid irritating your gums. Floss once a day. Although inflamed and irritated gums may make flossing painful, you’ll want to floss regularly to remove plaque buildup between your teeth.
- Eat a healthy diet. Diabetics should avoid foods that cause spikes in blood sugar levels, especially candy, cookies, and soda.
- Instead, aim to include foods that have a low glycemic index, such as beans, dark green leafy vegetables, and whole grains.
- Quit smoking. If you smoke and you have diabetes, use your health as a reason to stop smoking now. Smoking increases the risk of diabetic complications, including gum disease. Talk to your doctor about ways to kick the habit.
Diabetes presents plenty of problems to those who suffer from the condition. However, you don’t have to let it ruin your health. With careful management and a solid oral regimen, you can keep diabetes and its complications in check.