The Mouth Can Illuminate Your Body's Health

By Richard Asa and Sherry Baker @SherryNewsViews
April 12, 2015
01 May 2014 --- Close up of woman's smile --- Image by © JGI/Jamie Grill/Blend Images/Corbis

The health of your mouth can influence and trigger medical problems in other parts of your body, while some medical problems leave tell-tale signs in your mouth.

Imagine going to a long delayed dental check-up and finding out far more than you expected. It likely isn’t a total surprise if you learn you have a cavity or some gum disease. But what if your dentist spots signs of a possibly serious health problem in your mouth?

As it turns out, that’s not a far-fetched possibility. In fact, while oral conditions are frequently considered separate from other health problems, they are often interrelated, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Researchers have learned the health of your mouth and teeth can influence and sometimes trigger medical problems in other parts of your body. What’s more, some medical problems can leave tell-tale signs in your mouth.


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The dental health link to diabetes

Bill Radley was 62 when he finally scheduled an appointment with his dentist. He had skipped dental appointments for a couple of years until he decided to find out what was causing his bad breath, which persisted despite constant brushing and mouth rinsing.

During a routine oral exam, his dentist found Radley’s gums were red, inflamed, and bleeding — oral symptoms that can be linked to diabetes. The dentist recommended Radley see his doctor right away. After several diagnostic blood tests, diabetes was confirmed. The good news was his condition was caught early, thanks to his observant dentist’s warning, and treatment brought his blood sugar under control before the diabetes caused other health problems.

Radley’s story isn’t rare.

Whether a person has type 1 or type 2 diabetes, oral manifestations of uncontrolled diabetes are common, according to the American Dental Association. Signs of untreated or undertreated diabetes can include an unusually dry mouth (xerostomia), a burning sensation in the mouth, and oral thrush (an overgrowth of the fungus Candida albicans).

Diabetes, especially if it isn’t controlled well, also increases the risk for gum disease, enlarged salivary glands, and delayed or impaired healing from any injuries or dental surgery to your mouth and gums.

Diabetes is just one of many diseases with manifestations that may first present in your mouth. As such, your dentist may be the first healthcare provider to suspect or diagnose a systemic condition or disease.

Oral symptoms of systemic problems include swollen gums, ulcers, dry mouth, and excessive gum problems. All can be warning signs of immune system problems, anemia, gastroesophageal disease, and other health problems. X-rays of your mouth not only reveal problems with your teeth but also can detail the first evidence of atherosclerosis in your carotid arteries. If your dentist finds such damage, he or she can refer you for further medical evaluation.

More oral health and disease connections

Diabetes is one of many diseases with manifestations that may first appear in your mouth. Poor oral health can contribute, and even cause, serious medical problems far removed from your mouth and teeth. That’s because your mouth is full of bacteria. Some bacteria are usually normal and harmless. Some are not.

Brushing your teeth and flossing each day can help keep tooth decay and gum disease away. But when you have poor oral health, bacteria linked with serious health problems can multiply in your mouth and spread. Likewise, if your immune system is compromised by certain conditions, including HIV/AIDS or certain cancer treatments, your mouth may be more likely to harbor disease-causing germs.

Never ignore gum disease. Multiple studies indicate that bacteria linked to the inflammation and infection of periodontitis, the most severe form of gum disease, may be especially dangerous if it spreads to other parts of your body, including the heart.

Infective endocarditis occurs when harmful bacteria from other parts of your body, including your mouth, spread through your bloodstream (typically during a dental procedure) and infect the inner lining of your heart chambers or valves. Some research suggests inflammation and infections caused by oral bacteria may play a role in heart disease and stroke, too.

Researchers are studying whether the bacteria linked to periodontitis play a role in the development or progression of Alzheimer's disease. In addition, periodontitis has been implicated in pregnancy complications, including premature births and low birth weight. It may increase the risk of pneumonia and other respiratory diseases, too.

Bottom line: Proactive oral healthcare is important

Committing to good oral hygiene and regular dental check-ups can go far to protect not only your teeth and gums but also your overall health.

Dental experts urge brushing your teeth at least twice a day for two minutes each time with fluoride toothpaste. Floss daily, too, and eat a healthy diet with few or no sugar-rich foods and beverages.

Schedule and keep regular dental checkups and cleanings. Contact your dentist when you notice any oral health problem, from a sensitive tooth to mouth sores or swollen gums.

Remember, your mouth can work two ways when disease is involved. If your dentist advises a symptom or problem in your mouth needs attention from your doctor, take action. Finding a possible health problem sooner rather than later can be the best way to treat it successfully — and that’s something to smile about.


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June 28, 2022

Reviewed By:  

Christopher Nystuen, MD, MBA and Janet O'Dell, RN