Dental checkups may reveal more than you realize.
“People think we’re only looking at teeth,” says Gigi Meinecke, DMD, spokesperson for the Academy of General Dentistry and a dentist in private practice in Potomac, MD. “But typically we’re looking at all of the soft tissues in the mouth.” This access can allow dentists to identify a number of surprising conditions—from diabetes to GERD—possibly before you or your doctor are aware of them. Here are the most common diseases your dentist might be able to detect.
Up to 20 percent of patients with this inflammatory bowel disorder develop lesions in their mouth that may even precede abdominal symptoms such as cramps and diarrhea, according to a 2010 study from the Medical University of South Carolina in Charleston. Dr. Meinecke says that she’s seen swollen lips and dime-sized ulcers on the inside of cheeks and lips—a white center with a red halo circling it. If she suspects Crohn disease, she’ll do X-rays to rule out gum disease and ask about medical history and medications. “If I can’t find a reasonable explanation for the symptoms, I’ll recommend they see their regular doctor,” she says.
Bleeding, receding, dry gums, dry mouth, and wiggly teeth are all typical oral symptoms of patients with diabetes, who are more likely to get gum disease, says Sam Morhaim, DDS, a periodontist in Great Neck, New York. However, many of these symptoms result from simple bad hygiene, so dentists may not assume it’s diabetes unless other risk factors are there, or you have these symptoms despite taking good care of your mouth. If your dentist suspects signs of diabetes, he’ll likely recommend a blood test at your primary care doctor’s office. Oral health and diabetes management are closely linked, Dr. Morhaim notes. Patients who take better care of their teeth and gums may have better blood sugar control; patients with better blood sugar control may have less severe cases of gum disease.
Oral cancer is the sixth most-common cancer in America, with 30,000 new cases reported every year. Regular dental visits can help catch signs of it in its earliest stages, when survival rates are more than 80 percent. Oral cancer shows up as white and red lesions, usually on the tongue, the floor of the mouth, and the soft palate tissues in the back of the tongue, according to Delta Dental. Early on, the lesions are usually painless and tough for patients to spot themselves. Ask your dentist to perform an oral cancer screening during checkups. It’s particularly important if you have risk factors for the disease, including smoking, heavy alcohol use, and exposure to the HPV (the same virus that causes cervical cancer).
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If the lining of someone’s mouth is very pale—a light shade of pink—dentists might suspect anemia, a condition in which the body doesn’t have enough red blood cells circulating, says Dr. Meinecke. As well, the tongue can lose its typical bumpy texture and become smooth looking.
GERD (gastrointestinal reflux disease)
Stomach acid—with a pH that’s lower than vinegar—that regurgitates into the esophagus and mouth can dissolve tooth enamel and create erosive lesions near the back of the mouth. While many people with GERD recognize it by the uncomfortable heartburn symptoms, some patients only experience GERD while they sleep and may not know they have it. “It’s common for patients to say they’re having trouble sleeping and not know why they’re waking in the middle of the night,” says Dr. Meinecke. She advises patients with GERD symptoms to consider proton-pump inhibitors like Nexium and Prevacid, which reduce acid production.
You certainly know when you’ve had a rough week at work, but the state of your mouth may indicate that stress is taking a more serious toll than you realize. Many people may grind their teeth—a condition known as bruxism—in response to stress, which can wear down and chip your pearly whites, notes WebMD
. Swear you’re not a tooth grinder? Dr. Morhaim says most of his patients tend to do it at night while they’re sleeping. A customized night guard to wear while you sleep may help.