Diabetes and Your Teeth
If you’re among the more than 34 million Americans living with diabetes, you already know that the disease can impact many areas of the body and many aspects of life. One area that is often overlooked is how both Type 1 and Type 2 diabetes can affect oral health. Individuals with diabetes face a greater risk of developing dental and gum problems than the average person and, as you can probably surmise, these added risks have everything to do with poorly controlled blood sugar.
The link between diabetes and oral complications
If you have diabetes, specifically if your daily blood sugar tests tend to be on the elevated side, you are more susceptible to developing oral problems. Here’s why. High blood sugar can weaken your white blood cells, which are the primary way your body fights off infection. So, when blood sugar becomes difficult to control due to diabetes, it elevates your risk for infections in the mouth and gums.
Additionally, when blood glucose becomes too high, it’s not just your bloodstream that sees a rise in levels. Your saliva also experiences an increase in sugar, and it just so happens that the bacteria in plaque, which builds up to some degree in all of our mouths, feeds on this added sugar. This thriving bacteria can contribute to tooth decay, cavities, and gum disease. If things aren’t treated, you could eventually develop more serious oral issues, including tooth loss and periodontal disease.
Diabetes and periodontal disease
Did you know that every one of us has more tiny bacteria swirling around our mouths than there are people on the planet? It’s true and for those with diabetes this can pose some serious problems. The bacteria in your mouth can lead to infection, first developing into early-stage gum disease (gingivitis) which, if left untreated, can lead to the far more serious problem of periodontal disease.
Gingivitis is caused when plaque builds up around the base of the teeth just at the gumline. Over time, this causes the gums to become irritated. Eventually, the gums swell up and begin to bleed. It’s uncomfortable to say the least, but it’s also the first step towards periodontitis, a far more painful and serious condition.
What is periodontitis?
Periodontitis is advanced gum disease that damages the soft tissue and bone that support your teeth. Over time, periodontitis causes the gums and jawbone to actually pull away from the teeth, which, in turn, causes the teeth to loosen enough that, in many instances, they fall out. While anyone can develop periodontal disease, it tends to be more severe among those with diabetes as elevated blood sugar slows the healing process and the diminishes the body’s ability to fight the infection. Naturally, the slower the body heals an infection, the greater the risk of it becoming a more acute and serious issue.
Other oral conditions caused by high blood sugar
Periodontal disease isn’t the only tooth and gum disorder that those with diabetes face a higher risk of contracting. Others include:
Thrush is a fungal infection of the mouth and tongue caused by the yeast Candida albicans. Diabetics are more likely to develop thrush because the fungus feeds on excess glucose in the saliva. Since high blood sugar also means higher sugar levels in the mouth, thrush is a big concern for diabetics. The infection is characterized by the appearance of painful red or white patches inside the mouth. On the plus side, proper oral hygiene dramatically reduces the risk of getting thrush.
Some individuals with elevated blood sugar experience a lack of saliva - a conditioned commonly called “dry mouth”. Along with being uncomfortable, dry mouth heightens the risk of tooth decay and gum disease. It can also contribute to contracting thrush.
So, what can you do?
For those living with diabetes, protecting, and preserving your teeth and gums really comes down to two primary commitments. One, do everything you can and everything your doctor says to manage your diabetes and keep your blood sugar in check. Two, practice good dental and oral hygiene every day.
Test your blood sugar regularly
Follow your doctor-approved diabetes testing schedule. It doesn’t matter whether you use a glucose meter and test strips or have been prescribed a continuous glucose monitoring system (CGM), just make sure you test and track your blood glucose regularly. If it’s high, get it under control. If lowering blood sugar proves difficult, talk with your diabetes physician. You may need to make certain adjustments to your diabetes health and treatment program.
Follow your diabetes medication program
If you’ve been prescribed medication, including insulin injections by syringe or pen needle, make sure you follow your treatment schedule. If you’ve been prescribed an insulin pump, make sure both your pump and infusion sets are calibrated and functioning properly. Again, if you have difficulty keeping your blood sugar in the target range even when following your doctor-prescribed treatment program, contact your physician as you may need to adjust your insulin or medication dosage and schedule.
Inform your dentist
Make sure your dentist knows you have diabetes. In fact, it’s a good idea to remind your dentist and dental technician every time you get a cleaning. This helps them be ultra-vigilant in terms of looking for diabetes-related oral issues. Also, provide your dentist with the contact information for your diabetes physician in case a problem does develop.
Schedule regular dental cleanings and x-rays
You must have your teeth cleaned and get x-rays regularly in order to catch tooth decay and gum disease in the early stages. Schedule a visit at least twice a year. If you are someone who actively accumulates plaque and tartar, it might be wise to visit your dentist every four months.
Brush and floss daily
Most of us are pretty good at brushing our teeth at least twice a day, but it’s also important to floss at least once (usually before bedtime). Flossing helps remove plaque between the teeth and gumline that leads to gingivitis and periodontitis.
Examine your gums
Take a moment every few days to really look at your gums. Are they red? Swollen? Bleeding? If so, make an appointment to see your dentist.
Smoking doesn’t just increase your risk of cardiovascular disease, high-blood pressure, cancer and a host of other serious health complications, it dramatically increases the risk of gum disease, which eventually can lead to tooth loss.
Smile, it’s all about maintenance
The best way to avoid diabetes-related oral complications is sticking to the commitment you make each and every day to manage your disease. When you’re able to keep your blood sugar in the target range, it virtually eliminates the added risk of gum and tooth disease. Tack on good oral hygiene habits and regular dental checkups and you’ll be smiling for years to come.
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