How Diabetes Can Affect Your Teeth

Without good dental hygiene, diabetes can increase your risk of cavities, gum disease and mouth infections.

Diabetes is a serious disease because it can lead to complications in nearly every part of your body if left uncontrolled. If you’re at risk of becoming diabetic or have been diagnosed as diabetic, you’re probably already taking steps to control your health. But did you know that having high blood glucose levels also increases your risk of cavities, gum disease and mouth infections? Diabetes affects your teeth in two ways: the first is by increasing the amount of sugar that is constantly circulating in your mouth; the second is by decreasing your body’s ability to fight infections. Don’t let these diabetic repercussions have a detrimental impact on your long-term enjoyment of daily tasks such as eating and drinking: Read on to learn more about the link between diabetes and teeth issues, and ensure your mouth, and you, stay healthy for life.

Why are diabetics prone to teeth and gum issues?

High blood sugar (glucose) levels directly affect the amount of sugar in your saliva. More sugar in your blood means more sugar in your saliva, and the increased salivary sugars encourage harmful bacteria to grow. This bacteria builds up as plaque, which irritates the gums and can lead to gum disease, gingivitis (gum disease) and even periodontitis (advanced gum disease). 

Conversely, research suggests that uncontrolled gum disease may contribute to insulin resistance, worsening glycemic control. In other words, gum disease and high blood glucose levels are connected (meaning that each could lead to the other), warns The American Diabetes Association.

Diabetes also affects your body’s ability to fight infections. If you are a diabetic, you’re more prone to suffer from dry mouth and mouth ulcers, which can lead to cavities and salivary gland infections. You’re also more at risk of developing oral diseases such as Thrush, a fungal infection that causes patches that burn or feel sore and make it hard to swallow.

Most common mouth problems with diabetes

Plaque is a sticky film of bacteria that coats your teeth. Plaque is formed when the starches and sugars in your food interact with the naturally occurring bacteria in your mouth. Plaque formation is exacerbated as salivary sugar levels rise. Plaque irritates your gums, builds up and hardens over time, making it difficult (and sometimes near impossible) to thoroughly clean your teeth — making room for cavities, gum disease and eventually even tooth loss. 

Tooth Decay, otherwise known as cavities, is caused by the acids in plaque attacking tooth enamel and dentin (the outer and inner layers of your tooth, respectively). Higher blood glucose causes the higher salivary sugar levels, increasing the amount of plaque on your teeth and more acid attacking your tooth’s structure. Tooth decay also leads to sensitivity. When the tooth loses its enamel (the protective coating), the layer underneath exposes nerves that react poorly to heat, cold, acidic and sticky foods. Enamel loss is irreversible, which is why it’s important to brush and floss at least twice daily. 

Gingivitis is early-stage gum disease, caused when plaque builds up and hardens at your gumline into a substance called tartar. Plaque or tartar at your gumline can irritate your gums, making them swollen, red and will easily bleed. 

Periodontitis is an advanced stage of gingivitis. Over time, the tartar buildup at the gumline causes your jawbone and gums to pull back from your teeth exposing the bone and soft tissues that are the foundation of your teeth. Eventually, this can cause teeth to loosen and maybe fall out. Periodontitis is an infection and because diabetes hinders your ability to fight infections, diabetics are often more susceptible. 

Dry Mouth is a common symptom for diabetics. Research shows that diabetes negatively impacts your body’s ability to make saliva. Because harmful bacteria thrive in dryer conditions, reduced saliva production puts you at a higher risk for developing plaque, gum disease and other infections. Hydration, a key to managing blood glucose, can also help prevent dry mouth and mouth diseases.

Thrush is a fungal infection which causes itchy and painful red or white patches in your mouth. This disease affects your ability to swallow and enjoy basic daily tasks such as eating and drinking. 

Diabetes and oral health: symptoms to watch out for

If you’ve been diagnosed with diabetes, take note of the following symptoms because they may be signs that high blood glucose levels are affecting your oral health. If you’re experiencing any of these symptoms, see your dentist right away. 

  • Red, swollen, tender or bleeding gums
  • Sensitive teeth or pain when chewing
  • Gums that have pulled away from your teeth
  • Long-lasting gum infections 
  • Bad breath that doesn’t go away
  • Permanent teeth are becoming loose
  • Changes in the way your teeth fit together when you bit or in the fit of your dentures
  • Sore patches inside of your mouth
  • Dry mouth
  • Mouth sores that do not heal

Tips to prevent teeth issues caused by diabetes

Diabetics develop plaque at a much faster rate than non-diabetics, so keeping up with good oral hygiene is important. The International Diabetes Federation’s Guidelines on Oral Health shared a study in which a group of diabetics and non-diabetics refrained from practicing good dental hygiene for three weeks. Those diagnosed with diabetes had a significantly higher plaque development than the non-diabetic group. When good oral hygiene practices resumed, both groups restored their mouths to healthy states. 

To practice good oral hygiene, brush, floss and rinse with an antiseptic mouthwash — at least twice daily. Clean dentures daily if you have them. Make regular visits to your dentist. As importantly, manage your blood glucose levels. Learn more:
7 Simple Ways to Control Blood Sugar Spikes
Continuous Glucose Monitors: All Your Questions Answered

Can dental hygiene actually prevent diabetes?

While there’s a clear link between diabetes and teeth issues, much more research is needed to determine if good oral hygiene can prevent diabetes. A recent study conducted in Japan postulates that improvements in oral health, including the maintenance of masticatory function (a good ability to chew) and reduced loss of teeth, may contribute to the prevention of sarcopenia (loss of muscle tissue) and diabetes in older adults. While the finding that good oral hygiene can directly prevent diabetes seems a stretch, the association with sarcopenia is noteworthy, as studies have shown that the decreased skeletal muscle mass and strength caused by sarcopenia can increase the risk of insulin resistance in aging skeletal muscle.

Key takeaways

Diabetes, with its associated high blood glucose levels, affects nearly every system in your body, including your mouth. Diabetes increases the amount of sugar in your saliva and decreases saliva production, leading to the development of increased plaque, cavities, gum disease and other oral infections. High blood glucose also decreases your body’s ability to fight infections. Therefore, on top of taking steps to better control your blood glucose levels, your diabetes management plan should include good oral hygiene.

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