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Diabetes and Dental Health

Poorly-managed diabetes can lead to gum disease and other dental issues. Learn to take control of your oral health and your blood sugar.

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You may be aware that diabetes can cause complications such as heart disease, kidney failure and blindness. But, diabetes can also affect your mouth and contribute to dental problems. If your blood sugar levels are not kept in check, you are at risk for infections, such as periodontal (gum) disease, dry mouth and other dental problems. 

The link between gum disease and diabetes

People with diabetes have a higher risk for infections. This includes gum disease, which is caused by bacteria. You're more likely to get gum disease if your blood sugar levels are not under control. And, this risk may go both ways. Gum disease may make blood sugar levels harder to manage.

Gum disease basics

Gum disease can range from mild gum swelling to serious damage of the tissue and bones that support the teeth. Gingivitis and periodontitis are two types of gum disease. A mild form of gum disease is gingivitis. This is when the gums are swollen, red and bleed easily. Often, you are able to reverse it with daily flossing, brushing and regular teeth cleanings by a dental hygienist or dentist.

Periodontitis can develop if gingivitis is not treated. This is when your gums separate from the tooth and form deep pockets where infection can thrive. If left untreated, it can lead to tooth decay and tooth loss.

Some symptoms of gum disease

See your dentist at regular intervals or if you have signs of gum disease, such as:

  • Swollen, tender or red gums
  • Bleeding gums when you brush or floss
  • Gums that have separated from the teeth (the tooth may look longer)
  • Teeth that have moved apart from each other
  • Pus between the teeth and gums
  • Chronic bad breath
  • Change in how your teeth fit together when you bite
  • Change in how your dentures or bridge fits in your mouth

Other oral health concerns

Having diabetes also raises your risk for:

  • Dry mouth (xerostomia). This happens when you do not have enough saliva to keep your mouth moist. You may have difficulty tasting, chewing and swallowing food, and trouble talking as a result. Dry mouth also raises your risk for gum disease.
  • Thrush. This is a fungal infection and having a higher glucose (sugar) level in your saliva can contribute to thrush. Thrush results in painful white patches in your mouth.

What you can do

Preventing problems before they begin is easier and less costly than treating them. Preventing gum disease and other dental health issues includes having good dental health habits and keeping your blood sugar under control.

Mouth and dental care tips:

  • Brush your teeth at least twice each day. Use toothpaste with fluoride.
  • Floss your teeth at least once per day.
  • Get dental checkups as often as your dentist suggests. Be sure to let your dentist know you have diabetes.
  • Ask your dentist if you should use an antimicrobial mouth rinse.
  • Call your dentist if you have any symptoms of gum disease or thrush. Ignoring symptoms can lead to more serious problems.

Keep your blood sugar levels under control by doing the following:

  • Follow your diabetes care plan as prescribed by your doctor.
  • Take all of your diabetes medications as directed.
  • Check your blood sugar levels as often as your doctor suggests. Keep a record of your readings. This will help you and your doctor see if your diabetes treatment plan is working.
  • Eat a healthy diet. Your diet should focus on the same foods as any other healthy diet: fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean protein and low-fat and fat-free dairy. Limit foods high in saturated fats, sodium and added sugars. Avoid trans fats.
  • Exercise regularly. Aim for at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise per week. Try to spread that over at least three days. Resistance training also has shown benefits for controlling diabetes, as long as you don't have health restrictions. Talk to your doctor first before you increase your activity level.

Do not smoke. If you do, quit.

By Jenilee Matz, M.P.H., Contributing Writer

Standards of medical care in diabetes-2015. Diabetes Care. 2015. 38, S1-S99.  Accessed: October 29, 2015.
American Diabetes Association. Oral health and oral hygiene. Accessed: October 29, 2015.
National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research. Diabetes: Dental tips. Accessed: October 29, 2015.

Last Updated: October 29, 2015