How Does Diabetes Affect Your Oral Health? [VIDEO]

Originally published November 2020. Updated November 2021.

As of 2018, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) estimated that 34.2 million people in the United States live with diabetes, with 7.3 million adults unaware they have diabetes. These are particularly scary statistics given that most of us know that diabetes can lead to a host of other health problems, from vision problems to kidney complications to cardiovascular disease.

But did you know that diabetes can also affect the health of your smile?

Not only does it increase your risk of developing diseases that affect your teeth and gums, but poor oral health can be one of the first signs of diabetes.

Sign up for MySmile® to check your benefits and help manage diabetes – most of our plans cover cleanings and other preventative care!

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What is Diabetes?

Diabetes is a metabolic condition that affects the body’s ability to process and use glucose, the sugar in the blood that serves as our primary source of energy.

The body produces glucose from the food we consume and sends it for our cells to use as energy. But glucose cannot reach these cells without the help of the hormone insulin. Without insulin, cells cannot use glucose, and this causes high blood sugar – a condition that weakens the body’s defense against infection, including those in the mouth.

Type 1 diabetes versus type 2

There are two main types of diabetes: type 1 and type 2.

With type 1 (formerly known as juvenile diabetes), the body doesn’t produce enough insulin for cells to get the glucose they need. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that between 5 and 10 percent of all diabetes cases are type 1, and the World Health Organization says the cause is currently unknown.

In cases of type 2 diabetes, the body stops using insulin effectively over time. This accounts for an estimated 90-95% of diabetes diagnoses, which usually occur later in life than type 1 diabetes. Primary risk factors include unhealthy diet, increased body weight, and lack of physical activity.

Other less common types of diabetes include gestational diabetes, which occurs in some pregnant women and usually goes away after the baby is born. However, both mother and child can have an increased risk of developing type 2 diabetes later on.

There are also cystic fibrosis-related diabetes and monogenetic diabetes, which results from a single genetic mutation inherited from one or both parents.

How is diabetes related to oral health?

No matter what type of diabetes you have, you’re at an increased risk of developing problems that can affect nearly every part of the body, including the mouth. Even if you haven’t been diagnosed with diabetes, common dental problems like gingivitis can potentially be an early warning sign. Other signs of possible symptoms include:

Diabetes and tooth decay: The high glucose in our saliva provides more food for the decay-causing bacteria in dental plaque. When these bacteria multiply, they produce acid as a byproduct of metabolism, which increases the rate and extent of tooth decay.

Diabetes and gingivitis: The bacteria in plaque and tartar can cause swelling and bleeding along the gum line. High blood sugar increases the risk of developing gingivitis by harming the body’s ability to fight infection.

Diabetes and gum disease: If left untreated, gingivitis can develop into an advanced gum disease known as periodontitis. This condition is characterized by the loss of bone that supports the teeth. Gingivitis can contribute to spikes in blood sugar that make diabetes more difficult to control, and thus more difficult to fight gum disease. It is a vicious cycle that has led to periodontitis becoming the most common dental disease among diabetics, affecting approximately 22% of diabetics.

Periodontitis can also lead to tooth loss, with 1 in 5 cases associated with diabetes. Furthermore, diabetes can impair blood flow, which means your recovery period can be extended if you need oral surgery for gum disease.

Diabetes and dry mouth: Dry mouth can be another symptom of diabetes due to lack of saliva. In some cases, this may lead to difficulty swallowing, difficulty speaking, a burning sensation, or a persistent sore throat. Saliva is also very important to get rid of food, bacteria, acid and other disease-causing substances in the mouth. Without saliva, tooth decay and gum disease can form more easily.

Diabetes and thrush: People with diabetes also have an increased risk of developing other infections in the mouth, especially a fungal infection known as thrush. This causes painful red or white patches in the mouth that are made worse by smoking or high levels of sugar in the saliva.

Caring for your oral health with diabetes

The good news is that you can stay on top of your diabetes by taking your doctor’s prescription medications, following a healthy diet plan, and getting regular exercise. By controlling your blood sugar levels, you will also help reduce your chance of developing oral health problems now and in the future.

Whether you have diabetes or not, it is important to:

  • brush for two minutes twice a day with a soft toothbrush and fluoride toothpaste;
  • floss at least once a day, preferably before bedtime;
  • Clean your dentures every day if you wear them;
  • Visit your dentist twice a year for regular cleanings;
  • Avoid smoking

Also, be sure to watch for any changes such as bleeding gums, dry mouth or loosening of the teeth and report them to your dentist as soon as possible. Also, be sure to tell your doctor about any new symptoms related to your mouth. There may be no cure for diabetes, but with the right maintenance and treatment plans, you can enjoy a life of oral health and overall health.

Sign up for MySmile® to check your benefits and help manage diabetes – most of our plans cover cleanings and other preventative care!

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