If you have diabetes, you're probably already committed to protecting your feet, your eyes, and your heart. But how much thought do you give to your teeth and gums? Dental problems are a serious and very common complication of diabetes. Without proper dental care, you could suffer pain and discomfort. You could even lose your teeth. Fortunately, everyone with diabetes can take steps to help prevent these problems. It just takes a few minutes each day, and it's time well spent.
Why are people with diabetes prone to dental problems?
Everyone's mouth is teeming with life. As the American Diabetes Association puts it, you have more bacteria in your mouth than the earth has people. The key to good oral health is keeping these germs under control. If you don't clean your mouth regularly, your teeth will become coated in plaque, a sticky film of bacteria, saliva, and food. Over time, the plaque can make your gums red, sore, and tender, a condition called gingivitis.
Left untreated, gingivitis can turn into serious gum disease. The gums start to pull away from the teeth and bacteria seep into the gaps, where they will eventually start eroding the jawbone. Eventually, the teeth will loosen and fall out.
Gingivitis and gum disease can happen to anyone, but people with diabetes are especially vulnerable. For one thing, diabetes can impair your circulation and weaken your body's defenses against all sorts of infections. And if your blood sugar is too high, some of that extra sugar will end up in your saliva, providing a feast for hungry bacteria. High blood sugar and weakened defenses can also lead to thrush, a fungal infection that can cause sores in your mouth. To make matters worse, diabetes medications can dry out your mouth. Saliva helps wash away food and germs, so a dry mouth is more prone to cavities and gum disease.
Gum disease, in fact, affects 22 percent of people with diabetes -- more than one in five. Besides helping you keep your teeth, treating gum disease helps lower your blood sugar, according to the American Dental Association.
How can I protect my teeth and gums?
People with diabetes should follow the same basic rules for oral hygiene as everyone else -- the stakes just happen to be higher. The American Diabetes Association suggests brushing your teeth for three minutes at least twice each day. You should also floss at least once every day. Regular brushing and flossing will help keep plaque from getting a foothold in your mouth. If you have a dry mouth, try drinking more fluids. You can also get your saliva flowing by chewing sugarless gum or candy. As an alternative, you can buy a saliva substitute at your local drug store.
You should also get a thorough checkup and cleaning from your dentist every six months. Make sure your dentist knows you have diabetes, and be sure to mention any problems such as soreness or dry mouth.
Above all, do what you can to keep your blood sugar under control. Your mouth will be grateful -- and so will the rest of your body.
Diabetes and your smile. American Dental Association, 2017. http://www.mouthhealthy.org/en/az-topics/d/diabetes
American Diabetes Association. Oral health.
Oregon Health and Science University. Diabetes and periodontal (gum) disease.
National Diabetes Information Clearinghouse. Prevent diabetes problems: Keep your teeth and gums healthy.