Diabetes is a widespread health condition, affecting up to 37.3 million individuals in the United States alone. Aside from the disease itself, diabetes can also cause a wide array of health complications that can affect your overall health, well-being, and survival. Diabetes can negatively impact your oral health, including your mouth, teeth, and gums. For example, diabetic individuals have a 40 percent higher risk of untreated cavities versus those who do not, in addition to being 56 percent more likely to have severe tooth loss. These issues extend to other parts of the mouth, including the gums, emphasizing the immense burden diabetes can place on your oral health.

What complications can diabetes cause?

Several long-term and serious health complications can occur with uncontrolled diabetes. These include chronic kidney disease, heart disease, nerve problems, and issues related to your feet, vision, mental health, hearing, and oral health. These problems are further explained below:

  • Heart disease. Cardiovascular disease, or “heart disease” encompasses several conditions affecting your heart. The most common kind of heart disease is coronary artery disease, which is the result of plaque buildup in the walls of your arteries. This decreases blood flow, which can lead to heart attack and stroke. Diabetes can also contribute to heart-related issues like high blood pressure, increased cholesterol, and high triglycerides, putting you at risk for heart disease.
  • Nerve Damage. Increased blood sugar over an extended period can lead to nerve damage. There are several types of nerve damage, resulting in symptoms such as numbness, pain, weakness, bowel or bladder problems, aching, tingling, sexual dysfunction, and more.
  • Foot problems. Nerve damage can extend to different parts of the body, including your feet. You may experience pain, tingling, or numbness in your feet. This numbness can prevent you from feeling pain, resulting in sores, cuts, or blisters that go unnoticed and can cause serious health issues.
  • Chronic kidney disease. Increased blood sugar and high blood pressure can injure your kidney’s blood vessels, leading to chronic kidney disease (CKD). Individuals with CKD often need a procedure to filter their blood, known as dialysis, or a kidney transplant to stay alive.
  • Ear issues. Abnormal blood sugar can also affect the nerves in the inner ear, damaging them and causing hearing loss.
  • Vision loss. Diabetes can injure the retina’s blood vessels, which leak and swell. This causes blurry vision or ceases blood flow altogether. Over time, this can result in vision loss and even blindness.
  • Mental health. Up to 50 percent of individuals with diabetes experience diabetes distress, defined as overwhelming feelings associated with the diagnosis. This can take an eventual toll on your mental health.

As if the above risks weren’t enough, there are also oral health-related issues that can arise from diabetes. The rest of this article will explain this phenomenon and what you can do to help.

Why does diabetes affect oral health?

Like with other diabetes complications, the link between diabetes and oral health relates to blood sugar levels. Increased and unmanaged blood sugar levels affect the body’s white blood cells. White blood cells support your body in fighting infection, so a lack of white blood cells increases your risk of infection. The mucous membranes inside your gums and mouth are very susceptible to infection. Thus, with dysregulated blood sugar comes a slew of mouth-related issues.

What oral health issues might I experience with diabetes?

Numerous problems can arise with oral health and diabetes. These include:

  • Gingivitis and periodontitis. As aforementioned, diabetes can induce thickening of the blood vessels, preventing the transport of nutrients and waste throughout the body. With this, it is more difficult to fight infections, particularly in the mouth. Gingivitis and periodontitis are infections that occur in the gums, resulting in inflammation.
  • Dry mouth. High blood sugar can cause dry mouth, known as xerostomia. This is because diabetes lowers saliva production, which can cause ulcers, tooth decay, soreness, and infection.
  • Thrush. Thrush is a type of yeast infection occurring in the body’s moist areas like the mouth and vagina. Both high blood sugar and weakened immune systems can contribute to thrush, which explains its link to diabetes. High blood sugar levels make the body more susceptible to candida, increasing your risk for thrush.
  • Impaired healing. With decreased blood flow due to diabetes, wounds throughout the body can take longer to heal. This is particularly important to oral health, where recovery from dental or oral procedures is necessary.

These issues can result in discomfort, pain, and decreased well-being in addition to long-term health complications. Thus, preventative measures, prompt identification, and effective treatment are paramount in reducing the burden of poor oral health.

What are the symptoms of bad oral health due to diabetes?

Signs of bad oral health include but are not limited to the following in the mouth:

  • Swollen or bleeding gums
  • Dryness
  • Soreness
  • Bad taste in the mouth
  • White patches
  • Decreased saliva, causing dry mouth
  • Prolonged healing

Man with sore mouth

How can I treat my teeth problems due to diabetes?

Treatment of your oral issues will depend on what condition you have. For example, the treatment of periodontal disease, thrush, and dry mouth will all differ.

In the context of periodontal disease, a dentist will need to clean your teeth or even refer you to a provider for gum surgery. For thrush, you must take a specific medication to get rid of the fungus. To treat dry mouth, some medications can help keep the mouth moist.

Though some treatments are available to help support your oral health, they are not always effective or optimal. Prevention of these mouth issues in the first place by controlling your diabetes is what’s most important to avoid mouth disease down the road.

How do I prevent issues with my oral health?

Ultimately, diabetes is what causes oral health issues. Thus, it is paramount to treat your diabetes effectively to prevent complications. Work with your provider to maintain your blood sugars in a healthy range via a combination of medication and lifestyle changes involving diet and exercise. Always take your medication as directed by your healthcare provider.

How can I keep my teeth healthy?

In addition to treating your diabetes, there are several practices you should implement into your routine to support the health of your teeth, mouth, and gums.

  • Brush your teeth twice daily. The American Dental Association (ADA) suggests that individuals brush their teeth for a full two minutes twice daily every day. For proper brushing methods, angle your toothbrush at 45 degrees and brush along every surface of your teeth. ADA recommends using fluoride toothpaste and soft bristles to avoid damage to your enamel.
  • Floss daily. Tooth brushing alone is not enough, as food and plaque can build up in the spaces between your teeth and along the gums. Over time, these can cause tooth decay and gum disease. To floss effectively, place the floss around each tooth and slide it up and down.
  • Remove your dentures. If you have dentures, take them out to clean them once a day.
  • Go to your dentist twice yearly. Your dentist can ensure your oral hygiene is on par. If it is not or if you are at higher risk, they may recommend more frequent cleanings. Always alert your dentist of any issues related to your oral health, such as pain or dry mouth. Always tell your dentist if you have diabetes.
  • Stop smoking. Smoking worsens gum disease, so stopping can be a great preventative measure.

Woman flossing teeth

How do I prepare for my dentist appointment?

Roughly 60 percent of individuals in the US who have diabetes have had a doctor’s visit within the last year but no dental visit! Though seeing your doctor regularly for your diabetes and overall health is imperative, seeing a dentist is equally important to support your oral health while dealing with diabetes.

To maximize your next dentist appointment, it is best to find a dentist who is well-versed in treating diabetic patients. When you talk with your dentist, communicate your progress in managing your diabetes, including what medications you are on and how your blood sugars are doing. This will impact how your body responds to dental treatments and procedures, so it is helpful information to know.

Make sure to ask your dentist any questions you have or voice any concerns. It is a good idea to inquire about the state of your teeth and gums, particularly if there is any bleeding, inflammation, etc. Be open to feedback and suggestions from your dentist to ensure that you are optimizing the health of your mouth, teeth, and gums!

Conclusion

Diabetes can have widespread effects throughout the body, but one many may not consider is the health of your mouth. Diabetes can cause gum disease, dry mouth, thrush, and impaired healing in the mouth. All of these can contribute to poor health and decreased quality of life over time, in addition to all the other diabetes complications. Thus, it is essential to take charge of your diabetes and oral health.

Key Takeaways

  1. Diabetics are significantly more prone to oral health issues, with a 40% higher risk of untreated cavities and a 56% increased chance of severe tooth loss.
  2. Elevated blood sugar levels compromise white blood cells, the body’s infection fighters, leading to a higher susceptibility to oral infections.
  3. Diabetes can cause blood vessel thickening, impeding nutrient and waste transport, making it harder to combat infections like gingivitis and periodontitis.
  4. High blood sugar levels can lead to dry mouth and make the body a breeding ground for candida, increasing the risk of developing thrush.
  5. Diabetes-related decreased blood flow can prolong healing times, a critical concern for oral health where recovery from dental procedures is essential.
  6. Effective diabetes management is crucial in preventing oral health issues, highlighting the importance of maintaining blood sugar levels through medication and lifestyle changes.
  7. Adhering to ADA recommendations for oral hygiene, such as brushing twice a day and flossing daily, is vital for everyone, especially diabetics.
  8. Regular dental check-ups are as important as doctor visits for diabetics, with a focus on finding a dentist experienced in treating patients with diabetes.
  9. Sharing your diabetes management details with your dentist can influence dental treatment plans and improve outcomes.
  10. Despite regular medical check-ups, 60% of diabetics neglect dental visits, underscoring the need for increased awareness of the importance of oral health in diabetes care.