You can learn a lot about your health from your mouth.
Gum disease and diabetes go hand in hand. Diabetes can lower your body’s ability to resist infection. Elevated blood sugars increase the risk of developing gum disease. And gum disease can make it harder to keep blood sugar levels in check. Protect your gums by keeping blood sugar levels as close to normal as possible. Practice proper dental hygiene, and see your dentist at least twice a year—more if he requests it.
Mouth bacteria can trigger heart disease. Some studies show people with gum disease are more likely have heart disease than those with healthy gums. Though researchers don’t know exactly why this is—gum disease isn’t proved to cause other diseases—it makes sense to take care of your mouth like you do the rest of your body.
Stress can make you grind your teeth. Stressed, anxious, depressed? You may be at higher risk for oral health issues. Stressed people produce high levels of the hormone cortisol, which can wreak havoc on the gums and body. Stress also leads to poor oral care; research shows more than 50 percent of people don’t brush or floss regularly when stressed. Other stress-related habits include smoking, drinking alcohol and grinding teeth.
Osteoporosis can cause tooth loss. Osteoporosis affects all the bones in your body, including your jaw bone, and that can cause tooth loss. Bacteria from periodontitis, which is severe gum disease, can also break down the jaw bone. Bisphosphonates, often used to treat osteoporosis, may increase the risk of a rare condition called osteonecrosis, which causes bone death of the jaw. Keep your dentist informed if you take bisphosphonates.
HIV can lead to tooth decay, oral thrush and other mouth infections. People with HIV or AIDS may experience dry mouth, increasing the risk of tooth decay, or can develop oral thrush, oral warts, fever blisters, canker sores and hairy leukoplakia (white or gray patches on the tongue or the inside of the cheek). The body’s weakened immune system and its inability to stave off infections are to blame.
Gum disease can lead to premature birth. If you’re pregnant and have gum disease, you could be at increased risk for having a baby born prematurely and at low birthweight. How gum disease and premature birth are linked remains poorly understood by experts, but they believe underlying inflammation or infections could be to blame. Pregnancy and its related hormonal changes also make gum disease worse. Since black women have double the rates of preterm births, we don’t need help making this problem worse. Talk to your obstetrician or dentist to find out how to protect yourself and your baby.
Gum disease and rheumatoid arthritis are linked. People with rheumatoid arthritis (RA) are eight times more likely to have gum disease than people without this autoimmune disease. Inflammation may be the common denominator. Also, people with RA can have trouble brushing and flossing because of damage to finger joints. The good news: Treating existing gum disease can reduce joint pain and inflammation.
Pale gums are a sign of anemia. If you’re anemic, your mouth may be sore and pale and your tongue can become swollen and smooth. This is because your body doesn’t have enough red blood cells, or your red blood cells don’t contain enough hemoglobin, and you aren’t getting enough oxygen. There are different types of anemia, and treatment varies, so talk to your doctor to find out what type you have and how to treat it.
Medications may cause dry mouth. A chronically dry mouth raises risk of cavities and gum disease, so check your medicine cabinet. Antidepressants, antihistamines, decongestants and painkillers are among the drugs that can cause dry mouth. If you suspect your meds are affecting your health, talk to your doctor or dentist about changing your medication regimen or other options.
Dry mouth can cause tooth decay. Saliva helps protect teeth and gums from bacteria that cause cavities and gingivitis. So a constantly dry mouth is more susceptible to tooth decay and gum disease. Just ask the 4 million Americans who have Sjögren’s syndrome, a condition where the body’s immune system mistakenly attacks saliva glands and tear ducts. Its sufferers are more prone to having oral health problems.
How do you know if your gums are healthy? Look at them. They should be pink and firm, not red and swollen. To keep gums in good shape, practice good oral hygiene: Brush your teeth at least twice a day, floss once a day, rinse with an antiseptic mouthwash once or twice a day, see your dentist regularly and don’t smoke or chew tobacco.