Diabetes and Dental Hygiene: Preventing Periodontal Problems

Many of us will put up with tooth or gum discomfort for weeks, hoping beyond hope it will disappear, before finally making a dental appointment.

The problem with avoiding the dentist is that small problems can quickly morph into big ones, and that may be especially true for someone with diabetes.

Elevated blood sugar increases a person’s susceptibility to infection, and high sugar content in the saliva is a smorgasbord for any nasty bacteria or fungus trying to take up residence in our mouth. Also, depending on age and number of years living with diabetes the small blood vessels in our gums - necessary for nutrient flow and waste removal - may be impaired.

Heed the Signs

Fortunately, when problems are developing in the mouth there are usually clear warning signs. Heeding these signs, and seeing a dentist right away is highly recommended since any infection can cause blood sugar levels to rise, and having high blood sugar makes infections slower to heal.

So, tell your dentist (or doctor) about:

  1. Cuts, cold sores, or other mouth problems that are slow to heal, or never seem to go away.
  2. Bleeding while brushing or flossing. This often indicates the presence of a gum infection such as gingivitis.
  3. Having a dry mouth, or xerostomia. Since saliva protects our teeth and washes food particles away, people with a dry mouth are more vulnerable to cavities. If we have dry mouth and high sugar content in our saliva, the risk for cavities is even greater. (Drinking plenty of water, chewing sugarless gum, and eating healthy, crunchy foods to stimulate saliva flow can help relieve dry mouth).
  4. A white coating on the tongue, or inside of the cheek. This is characteristic of a yeast infection called oral thrush (candidiasis). It’s common among individuals with diabetes, especially those who wear dentures.
  5. Gum inflammation that lasts more than a few days. Inflammation is frequently owed to gingivitis, typically caused by bacteria in plaque—the sticky film that tends to hug our gum line. Left untreated, gingivitis weakens and may destroy the tissues, fibers, and bone that support our teeth.

Some people with diabetes might notice that the flavor of certain foods becomes less rich. If this occurs, avoid adding extra sugar to make food tastier. Instead, experiment with herbs, spices, and different food textures.

A Great Offense

Naturally, the best dental defense is having a great offense, and research suggests daily oral hygiene, and regular professional deep cleanings not only save our teeth, but can help lower A1C readings. Don’t forget to:

  • Brush as least twice each day, morning and night, with a soft bristled toothbrush; consider investing in an electric toothbrush.
  • Floss, or use another means of cleaning between the teeth, daily.
  • Clean any dentures daily.
  • See your dentist at least twice each year, and at every visit remind him or her that you have diabetes. Make sure the dental office has contact information for your physician.
  • Eat well, exercise regularly, and take medications as prescribed.
  • Quit smoking. Smoking greatly increases the risk for all diabetes complications.

One in five cases of total tooth loss is linked to diabetes, but as the comedian Soupy Sales said, "Be true to your teeth and they won't be false to you." With good glucose management, daily oral hygiene, and regular dental checkups most of us are destined to enjoy a lifetime of healthy gums and teeth.

Source: Know Your Teeth; Mouth Healthy / ADA; Mayo Clinic
Photo credit: Nick Harris

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