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Diabetes and Dental Health Go Hand in Hand

Having diabetes increases your risk of gum disease so visit a dentist regularly.

More than 23 million people in the United States have diabetes. If you're one of them, it's easy to understand why you'd want to know how diabetes affects your oral health. You might be surprised to learn that if your blood glucose levels are poorly controlled, you are more likely to develop serious gum disease (periodontitis) and lose more teeth than people who don't have diabetes. In turn, periodontitis may cause your blood sugar to rise, making your diabetes harder to control.

What puts people with diabetes at higher risk for gum disease? The less controlled your blood sugar level, the more impaired your white blood cells become. These guys are the main defense against bacterial infections that occur in your mouth. With less of them fighting infections, there's more chance serious dental problems will occur. The good news is a dentist can keep an eye on your oral health and help keep gum disease at bay.

The Diabetes-Gum Disease Connection

Gum disease is an infection of the gums -- the tissues that support your teeth. The first stage of gum disease is called gingivitis, and warning signs include red, tender gums and seriously bad breath (halitosis). As the disease progresses into periodontitis, it becomes much more severe, with receding gums, pus and tooth loss.

The catch is that gum disease is often painless. You may not know you have it until you have some serious damage. Be on the lookout for these warning signs:

- Bleeding gums when you brush or floss
- Red, swollen or tender gums
- Receding gums
- Pus between the teeth and gums
- Persistent bad breath
- Loose permanent teeth
- Changes in the way your teeth fit together when you bite
- Changes in the fit of partial dentures or a dental bridge

Other oral health problems common in people with diabetes include: thrush, an infection caused by fungus that grows in the mouth; dry mouth, which can cause soreness, ulcers, infections and cavities; and a variety of oral infections, which are clusters of germs causing problems in one area of the mouth. It also takes people with diabetes longer to heal from oral surgery and other dental procedures.

Dental Care for Diabetes

The No. 1 most important thing people with diabetes can do for their oral health is to keep their blood glucose levels as close to normal as possible. Gums stay healthy when the teeth around them are free of dental plaque and dental tartar. To keep your teeth and gums clean, brush your teeth twice a day and floss daily. If you wear dentures, remove and clean them every day.

Regular dental visits are your best weapon in the fight against gum disease. Only a professional dental cleaning can remove dental plaque and dental tartar. That's why having your teeth and gums checked and cleaned by your dentist twice a year is so important. (Your dentist may recommend more frequent visits depending on the status of your diabetes.) At each dental visit, discuss your diabetes status (how well controlled your blood sugar is) and the medications you take.

It's important for everyone to practice good oral hygiene, but even more so for people with diabetes. And keep an eye out for any changes in your oral health. If you notice anything, call your dentist right away. And if you haven't seen a dentist in awhile, now is the time to find one you'll love.