The Dental Exam that Could Save Your Life

It isn’t an exaggeration — keeping up with regular dental exams is important because certain medical conditions have symptoms that appear in your mouth. Your dentist could see signs of a serious illness before you even notice symptoms that would send you to the doctor.

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A dental exam also offers more than just a bright beautiful smile. Simply having your teeth cleaned regularly can reduce your risk for certain health issues. Did you know that regular dental care can cut your risk of heart attack by 24 percent and your risk of stroke by 13 percent over people who don’t have their teeth cleaned on a regular basis?

Dental Health and Diabetes

One of the first symptoms of diabetes may seem minor to you, but your dentist knows better. Bleeding gums, loose teeth, gum disease and even dry mouth are all possible symptoms of diabetes. Serious gum disease can affect how your body controls blood glucose, which contributes to the progression of the disease. So don’t be surprised if your dentist suggests a check-up with your doctor.

If diabetes isn’t enough cause for concern, the disease can lead to other complications such as stroke, heart disease and kidney disease.

Oral Health Is Close to Your Heart

Gum disease doesn’t just affect your teeth. It can also indicate more serious issues in the future, including heart disease and stroke. In one study, nearly 8000 patients with periodontal disease were tested. Some of the findings include:

  • Patients with very infected gums had a 53 percent increased risk of heart attack compared to those with less infection.
  • Patients with fewer teeth had a 2.5 increased risk of heart failure than patients with more teeth.
  • Patients with the highest incidents of gum bleeding had a 2.1 increased risk of stroke.

But why does dental health affect heart health? The exact link hasn’t been established, but the medical community has a few ideas based on current research. One theory is that bacteria in the mouth travels through the bloodstream, leading to heart-attack-causing plaque found in the arteries of the heart. Bacteria from the mouth may also release toxins that trigger dangerous blood clots. One more possibility is that that oral inflammation triggers inflammation throughout the body, leading to stroke and heart attack.

Most dental professionals will recommend a medical evaluation for patients with moderate to severe gum disease, especially if they have other risk factors, such as smoking. And if you have already been diagnosed with heart disease, consider scheduling a periodontal exam.

Osteoporosis and Your Teeth

Your dentist can be the first one to suspect osteoporosis if you’re an older adult with receding gums or loose teeth. Your actual teeth are not affected by osteoporosis, but the bones supporting them are affected. In fact, women with osteoporosis are three times more likely to have tooth loss than women without the disease.

If you have tooth loss, your dentures aren’t fitting right or you show symptoms of bone loss in your jaw, your dentist will likely request dental x-rays. After examining your x-rays, your dentist may recommend that you follow up with your doctor for further testing.

Uncovering Eating Disorders

Sometimes, dentists have to be detectives when health issues are hidden intentionally, which is often the case with eating disorders like bulimia or anorexia. But these disorders provide important clues.

Bleeding gums and dry mouth, which are also symptoms of diabetes, are only part of the picture. Stomach acid erodes teeth and is a visible sign to dental professionals that more help is needed for the patient. Other symptoms can include enlarged salivary glands, sores in the mouth, teeth that are sensitive to hot and cold, and even dry, cracked lips.

GERD and Your Teeth

You may not realize that you suffer from gastroesophageal reflux disease at night while you sleep until your dentist discovers the damage to your teeth. Unfortunately, your teeth may not be all that’s affected. Stomach acid damages tooth enamel but also erodes the lining of your esophagus. Cancer can also result from this damage.

When a Drink Isn’t Enough

Having a dry mouth may mean more than a need for a drink of water — it can also indicate that your mouth doesn’t produce enough saliva. Saliva is important for the prevention of gum disease and cavities, but not having enough saliva may indicate a more serious problem. Dry mouth can suggest diseases such as diabetes, Parkinson’s disease, Sjogren’s syndrome and other issues.

Get the Jump on Oral Cancer

Oral cancer is pretty sneaky. It can progress for quite some time before symptoms are noticed. Fortunately, the earlier oral cancer is caught, the better the chances are of survival. That’s where regular dental visits come into play. Your dentist will screen you for oral cancer and knows how to recognize the signs you might never notice.

Symptoms of oral cancer include:

  • A small red or white sore on the lips, gums, cheek or other area of the mouth
  • A sore that lasts for more than 2 weeks
  • A lump, pain or numbness in your mouth, neck or lips
  • Bleeding from the mouth or throat
  • Trouble swallowing
  • Hoarseness that won’t go away

If your dentist finds anything unusual, a biopsy will be ordered and a follow up with your doctor may be recommended.

Your dentist is part of your healthcare team and will do so much more than keep your teeth shiny and clean. A dental exam isn’t trivial or purely cosmetic – it could save your life.

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