How does diabetes affect my saliva production and oral health?

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Most people with diabetes can name the major complications of untreated high glucose levels. They will list heart disease, kidney disease, eye problems including blindness and amputation of toes and feet. Few will list gum disease and lost teeth. But that is right up there in the top five complications.

In fact, it is the dentist who often is the first to diagnose diabetes. If you think about it, the mouth is full of bacteria, and a high-sugar environment is an ideal place for bacteria to thrive. Once a patient develops periodontal disease, there is no cure and the inflammation it causes can actually make blood glucose control more difficult. But gum disease can be managed. This might include nonsurgical scaling, irrigation, local or systemic antibiotics or surgical interventions.

So what must you know if you have diabetes? Pay attention to symptoms of dry mouth; red, swollen or bleeding gums; unusual spacing between the teeth or loose teeth; or an unusual color of your tongue. If you note any of these, bring it to the attention of both your doctor and your dentist. Get your teeth professionally cleaned as often as you can afford it—twice a year at a minimum. Even if you brush and floss regularly, that professional level of cleaning is important if you have diabetes. Be sure the dentist and hygienist know you have diabetes and the medications that you take.

If you have children, you might also ask your dentist about a relatively new process to salvage stem cells from the baby teeth. The hope is that the technology will exist one day to turn the stem cells in the pulp into new insulin-producing cells, should the child ever develop diabetes.

Diabetes can cause a decrease in saliva production in the mouth. This often leads to dry mouth and side effects like infections, cavities, soreness and ulcers. Fungal infections, in particular, result from decreased saliva production as fungus often thrives in this kind of environment.

Dry mouth is also a problem for people who take antihistamines for allergies or colds. Dry mouth increases the risk of tooth decay. Saliva not only cleanses the teeth and makes swallowing and chewing easier, but it contains enzymes and minerals like fluoride that help prevent tooth decay. There are no easy answers for dry mouth, but the use of fluoride treatments and mouthwashes may help people with dry mouth have more protection from tooth decay. Also, chewing sugarless gum or drinking more liquids each day can give some relief from dry mouth.

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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.