Diabetes is a condition that affects the ability of the body to process sugar. It’s become a serious problem in the United States, with almost 10% of the population being diabetic. Because the body is not processing sugar correctly, blood sugar levels can remain at very high levels. When your blood sugar is consistently too high, it leads to a host of health problems. People with diabetes can suffer from a number of health problems, including heart disease, kidney disease, nerve damage, foot problems, and yes – dental disease.

What are the symptoms of diabetes?

Often, the first time you’ll find out about having diabetes is at the doctor’s office after routine blood work. Your primary care physician usually runs yearly labs to check your health, and that almost always includes a fasting blood glucose test. In its early stages, the symptoms of diabetes are either non-existent or so subtle they can easily be written off as anomalies. You could feel thirstier than normal and find yourself urinating more often, or you may exhibit extreme fatigue or unexplained weight loss. However, the only way to confirm the diagnosis is for the doctor to check your blood sugar levels.

How does diabetes affect the mouth?

Your mouth is made up of your teeth and gums, jaw, and tongue; along with the tissues that make up the roof of your mouth and the inside of your cheeks. While scientists don’t understand exactly why, they do know diabetes can inhibit the production of saliva, which results in a condition called dry mouth. On top of that, some medications used for controlling diabetes also contribute to dry mouth. Saliva helps wash the teeth throughout the day, and not having that protection can leave one prone to cavities, and even increase the likelihood of getting an infection in your mouth. This is why people with diabetes have a much higher chance of periodontal disease. Dry mouth is also a common cause of bad breath. If you suffer from dry mouth, you can try home remedies such as chewing sugar-free gum, drinking extra water, and try a mouthwash designed for dry mouth. If all else fails, your dentist can recommend other treatments or prescribe medication that can help mitigate the symptoms.

Can diabetes cause gum disease?

Diabetes and gum disease have a complicated relationship. People with diabetes have high blood sugar, but that high sugar level also manifests in your saliva. The mouth contains more than 6 billion bacteria made up of more than 700 different species. If that bacteria is allowed to linger too long, it will take up residence around your teeth and gums, which is dangerous because it’s your gums that keep your teeth in place. If you find yourself with red, swollen gums that bleed easily, you most likely have the beginning stages of gum disease, also known as periodontal disease.

It is estimated that 22% of people diagnosed with diabetes suffer from gum disease. It’s the most common dental disease found in people living with diabetes. Gum disease may first present with gingivitis, or an inflammation of the gums. You may notice that your gums bleed easily when brushing and flossing. If gingivitis is left untreated, it will evolve into full-blown periodontitis. At this point, the gums will pull away from the teeth, creating pockets that allow bacteria to infiltrate further below the gum line. This can cause infection to set in, which compromises the bone. If there is too much bone loss, you can wind up with loose teeth, or even lose the tooth.

The paradox between periodontal disease and diabetes is that poor blood sugar control puts you at a higher risk of gum disease. At the same time, advanced gum disease can cause an increase in blood sugar, making diabetes harder to control. On top of that, people living with diabetes do not heal as quickly as people without diabetes. This means that gum disease can also be much harder to control For this reason, it’s best to do what you can to prevent gingivitis from starting altogether.

How can you prevent gum disease if you have diabetes?

If this all sounds very dire, do not lose heart! There is much you can do to keep your teeth and gums healthy and stop gum disease from taking hold. It may sound obvious, but step one is to make sure you brush your teeth at least twice a day. Be careful when brushing that you use a soft brush, do not press too hard, and be sure to brush around every tooth. Also, don’t forget to brush your tongue! Doing so will get rid of the bacteria that build up there as well. Step two is flossing at least once a day using good dental floss. Step three is to avoid acidic drinks, including soda and water with lemon. Acidic drinks can erode the enamel of your teeth, which makes tooth decay more likely. And last but definitely not least, follow the recommendation of the American Dental Association and visit your dentist twice a year. Keeping on top of your oral hygiene and regular dental care can keep gum disease at bay, which will make your blood sugar control much easier to manage.

If you live with diabetes, take care of your teeth and gums.

Some of you may wonder if your dentist can diagnose diabetes. Only your primary care physician can actually make a diabetes diagnosis However, your dentist knows to watch out for telltale signs that you might have the disease. If you suffer from thrush, chronic bad breath, or unexplained weight loss, your dentist may recommend you see your doctor check your glucose levels. People that live with diabetes already know that if you can control your blood sugar, you can protect yourself from many of the resulting diseases that accompany the diagnosis. It’s vital to keep your oral health top of mind. Tooth decay and gum disease can contribute to high blood sugar, so be sure to keep up with your dental care. The bottom line is that while diabetes can definitely increase your risk of gum disease, good oral hygiene practices  and regular dental visits can keep your teeth and gums in good health.

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