Diabetics know their condition affects more than just their pancreas. Heart disease, high blood pressure, kidney disease, stroke and even blindness are just some of the related medical complications that diabetics face. Another health complication that diabetics experience as a result of their disease is poor dental health, and experience gum disease and periodontal infections at a higher rate that puts them at a greater risk for tooth loss.
This is especially true for patients who have diabetes and go undiagnosed. Researchers at the Centers for Disease Control and the American Diabetes Association estimate that 8.1 million Americans go undiagnosed each year.
One sign that a patient has diabetes is dry mouth. Dry mouth occurs because the disease impacts the body’s ability to produce saliva. Saliva plays an important role in the health of the mouth; it helps to keep the structures of the mouth moist, neutralizes the acid from food and drinks to prevent acid erosion and aids in the remineralization of the teeth to prevent bacteria from causing tooth decay. When the mouth is dry, patients have an increased risk of cavities.
Diabetics also often experience gingivitis, or irritation of the gums. Telltale of gingivitis include swelling, inflammation, and redness. Gums with gingivitis also bleed when poked or prodded, or when the patient brushes their teeth. If left untreated, gingivitis turns into more periodontitis or other gum infections.
These infections have the potential to damage gum tissue, bone and even cause tooth loss. In fact, 1 in 5 cases of tooth loss can be linked to diabetes, according to the National Diabetes Education Program. Oral infections also have the potential to damage the heart and lungs and have been linked to conditions like rheumatoid arthritis, colon cancer, early onset dementia and low birth weight and preterm babies.
Patients with diabetes also find that cuts, sores or wounds in the mouth area slow to heal. This situation leaves them susceptible to dangerous infections.
"Diabetics also usually have damage to their taste buds that prevent them from tasting food," says Dr. Steven P. Rogers, D.M.D, a Grant’s Pass, Oregon, dentist. Dentists often are the first to identify undiagnosed health conditions like diabetes in patients, often because patients visit their dentists more frequently than their doctors. "Dentists are not just concerned with the oral health of a patient," says Rogers. "Many dentists ask their patients for a detailed whole health history, and use that history in combination with what is going on in the mouth to decide if a referral to another health specialist is necessary to rule out a more serious condition," explains Rogers.
It is very important that patients that have undiagnosed or untreated diabetes get their blood sugar under control. Patients with diabetes should work to control their blood sugar using insulin or other prescribed medications to slow the progression of the disease, and exercise and eat a healthy diet. There are some extra steps that patients with diabetes can take to protect their dental health, says Rogers.
In addition to controlling blood sugar, diabetic patients should avoid smoking and using products containing nicotine. Nicotine causes the blood vessels to constrict, which prevents the necessary blood flow needed to maintain healthy tissues. Smoking also kills off cells in the mouth that serve as the body’s first-line defense against infection. "This also includes the use of e-cigarettes," says Rogers.
Diabetic dental patients should take care to practice proper oral hygiene by brushing and flossing at least twice a day. Diabetics with dental prosthetics like dentures should be diligent in cleaning them each day. They should also schedule and be sure to keep their dental appointments, says Rogers. "It is important to get checked at least twice a year to make sure everything looks good. Visiting the dentist is just as important as maintaining their insulin and diet."