Diabetes is one of the most common conditions in the United States, affecting an estimated 30 million Americans. Diabetes can lead to a host of medical issues and a predisposition for complications – and your oral health is no exception.

High blood sugar can weaken white blood cells, making infection and health issues more common. This means that dental health problems also occur more frequently in someone with diabetes. If you have diabetes, it is especially important to regularly monitor yourself for these commonly developed oral conditions.

How Does Diabetes Affect Your Oral Health

Gingivitis and Periodontitis

Gum disease is the most common oral health problem for someone with diabetes. Gum disease is caused by oral bacteria. As this bacteria combines with saliva and leftover food particles in the mouth, it forms plaque. A buildup of plaque will eventually lead to gum disease.

The earliest stage of gum disease is gingivitis. Gingivitis is categorized by irritation of the gingiva, or the part of the gum around the base of the teeth. The most common symptoms of gingivitis are:

  • Redness in gums
  • Puffy, swollen, or tender gums
  • Bleeding when brushing or flossing
  • Persistent bad breath
  • Receding gums

Gingivitis is more common in those with diabetes because, as sugar levels increase in your blood, it increases in your saliva as well. Bacteria thrives in a sugar-laden environment and, thus, can lead to gum disease and other oral complications more quickly than in someone without diabetes.

If untreated, gingivitis can transition into the more serious gum disease, periodontitis. Periodontitis erodes the tissues and bone that support your teeth and can lead to further decay and the loss of teeth.

Periodontitis, unlike gingivitis,  cannot be reversed and also can’t be treated by brushing and flossing alone. It necessitates the involvement of a dentist who will have to take more rigorous measures to mitigate the damage.

In mild cases, periodontitis can lead to increased sensitivity and bleeding of the gums but in severe cases can result in infection of the jawbone, tooth loss, and other serious conditions which require invasive treatment. It sometimes even necessitates gum surgery in order to save your teeth.

Dry Mouth

Diabetes slows down saliva production, putting you at risk for dry mouth, or xerostomia. Saliva makes enzymes that attack the bacteria found in our mouths, as well as washes away food particles which would otherwise linger.

With less saliva bacteria is allowed to grow unchecked and mix with these residual food particles. This can lead to even more tooth decay and gum disease, as well as  sores and ulcers in the mouth.

Infection

There are several oral infections that diabetes increases your risk for. One such infection is thrush. Thrush is a fungal yeast infection, caused by the fungus candida albicans, which is common amongst people with diabetes, as fungi also thrive in a sugar-rich environment.

Symptoms of thrush include:

  • Red or white patches on tongue or inside of cheeks, which can lead to
  • Open sores

If you wear dentures you are at an even higher risk of getting thrush, as the yeast thrives in moist areas, like under loose-fitting dentures.

Burning Mouth Syndrome and Oral Health

Burning Mouth Syndrome

Thrush and dry mouth can also lead to another complication called burning mouth syndrome. Symptoms of this can include:

  • Feeling of a scalded mouth
  • Tingling
  • Numbness
  • Loss of taste

Slow Wound Healing

Diabetes can also result in wounds or injuries taking longer to heal. This means that if an oral disease or ailment is contracted, it will take longer to heal and may worsen more quickly than in someone without diabetes.

Due to wounds remaining unhealed for longer periods of time, the risk of infection also increases, as the longer a wound is open the more time an infection has to develop.

How to Prevent Oral Problems?

Luckily, most tooth and gum diseases can be prevented before they have a chance to set in. By taking the proper steps, you can dramatically reduce your risk of health issues.  It is important to:

  • Keep your blood sugar in check to mitigate the effects of diabetes on your dental wellbeing
  • Brush at least twice daily for 2 minutes with a soft bristled toothbrush
  • Floss twice a day and rinse with an antimicrobial mouthwash
  • Refrain from any tobacco usage, even smokeless alternatives like vapes, snuff, or chewing tobacco. Tobacco use can worsen both diabetes and oral complications, such as tooth and gum disease
  • Get a dental checkup every 6 months (or more often, at your dentist’s recommendation).