Mom helping two children brush their teeth

How diabetes affects your oral health

By Andy Stergachis, PhD, RPh Aug 02, 2022 • 7 min

Most people living with diabetes know that good blood glucose (blood sugar) control is an important part of staying healthy. But did you know that according to the CDC, people with diabetes are more likely to develop tooth decay and gum disease, also called periodontal disease, than people without diabetes?

Why are people with diabetes at a higher risk of mouth diseases?

High blood sugar levels can also mean higher levels of sugar in your saliva, the fluid that keeps your mouth wet. Bacteria in the mouth feed on that sugar, making it easier for bacteria to grow and cause damage to your teeth and gums. When a person with diabetes is not meeting blood sugar targets, the body’s inflammatory response to bacteria can be more severe. This inflammation affects the tissues around your teeth and can eventually cause loose teeth.

Diabetes can also make you more prone to infection and slows healing. That’s because high blood sugar levels can weaken your body’s white blood cells, which are your body’s infection-fighting powerhouses. Weaker white blood cells are less able to fight off infections anywhere in your body, including your mouth.

A third way diabetes increases your risk of tooth decay and gum disease is that diabetes can cause dry mouth. Dry mouth is a condition that happens when your body doesn’t make enough saliva to keep your mouth moist. Without enough saliva to wash them away, harmful acids and small bits of food can stay on the teeth longer, contributing to soreness, ulcers, infections and tooth decay.

So, managing your diabetes well helps improve not only your blood sugar levels, but your mouth, tooth and gum health as well.

What causes gum disease?

Cavities and tooth decay are also caused by bacteria. Glucose and starches in saliva feed bacteria in your mouth, which can form plaque on your teeth. Bacteria living on teeth and gums, also called dental plaque, can trigger gingivitis, an early form of gum disease. Signs of gingivitis include red, swollen and even bleeding gums.

Periodontitis is a more serious form of gum disease. It is an inflammation of the gum and the bone that holds the teeth in place. It can damage your gums, make it painful to chew, loosen your teeth and cause your teeth to fall out. Periodontitis may also cause your blood sugar level to rise, which can make diabetes more difficult to control. The good news is that proper blood sugar control can help improve gum disease and lower your blood sugar levels over time.

What are some warning signs of poor oral health?

See your dentist if you have any of these symptoms:

  • Bleeding gums when you brush or floss
  • Red, swollen or tender gums
  • Soreness
  • Bad taste in the mouth
  • Gums that have pulled away from teeth
  • Bad breath
  • Loose teeth or teeth that move away from each other
  • Changes in the way your teeth bite

What are ways to keep teeth and gums healthy?

Control your blood sugar. This is important to help prevent mouth problems. Managing your blood sugar means following your diabetes treatment plan as directed by your healthcare provider. Take insulin and other medications as prescribed, eat nutritious foods and get regular exercise.

  • Brush your teeth at least twice a day and floss once every day. Use a fluoride toothpaste to reduce the risk of tooth decay.
  • See your dentist regularly to get professional cleanings, X-rays and checkups. Your dentist is your first line of defense against diabetes-related mouth, tooth or gum problems.
  • Ask your dentist about using anti-plaque or anti-gingivitis mouth rinse. This may help control plaque and lower the chance of gum disease.
  • Talk with your dentist and ask how often you should have your teeth checked and cleaned.
  • Tell your dentist if you have diabetes and about any other health conditions or medications.
  • If you wear dentures or a partial bridge, tell your dentist if they do not fit right or if your gums are sore.
  • If you smoke, quit; smoking makes gum disease worse. Visit the Walgreens Quit Smoking Answer Center for smoking cessation tips and support.

If you keep your blood sugar under control, brush and floss regularly, and visit a dentist as directed, you can help keep your mouth healthy.

Clinically reviewed and updated August 2022.

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