Your lips, teeth, and gums don’t lie—here’s what they can reveal about your overall health.
Your mouth is like a crystal ball for your health. That’s because a good dentist can spot a wide range of potential medical problems by looking between your chompers.
In fact, we found 6 serious health conditions that could be first discovered while you’re getting your teeth cleaned.
Your dentist sees: Less spit than you should have. Dry mouth can signal a hidden case of diabetes, but you might not notice that parched feeling until your saliva production decreases by half, says Dr. Homan Shamoeil of SoCal Dental Care, Dental Office in North Hollywood, California.
Your dentist’s trained eye can spot dryness much sooner. Chronic bad breath and slow healing when you burn or cut your mouth also might arouse suspicion.
What to do: According to a recent NYU study, your dentist may soon be able to screen for and control diabetes using blood collected from your gums during a routine visit. But until this test is widely available, see your primary care doctor for a physical and blood glucose check.
2. Acid reflux
Your dentist sees: Erosion in your bottom teeth. Any substance with a pH of 5.5 or lower can dissolve your tooth enamel—and gastric acid clocks in as low as 1.5, easily eating away at your pearly whites, Dr. Shamoeil says.
According to a recent study in the International Journal of Dentistry, about 1 in 4 people with chronic reflux have tooth erosion, sometimes without heartburn or other obvious symptoms.
What to do: Schedule an appointment with a gastroenterologist. Untreated gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) can lead to more serious health problems, including respiratory issues and esophageal cancer.
3. Crohn’s disease
Your dentist sees: Raised bumps that look like cobblestones on the gums right around your teeth. That’s because the same inflammation that strikes the intestines of people with Crohn’s disease can also affect their mouths, causing this classic sign.
Because these bumps aren’t painful, you might not even notice them before your dentist spots them. What’s more, recurring canker sores—those small, painful ulcers that form inside your mouth—could also signal Crohn’s or another type of inflammatory bowel disease, notes a recent review in the Journal of Evidence-Based Dental Practice.
What to do: Ask the dentist if topical corticosteroids can calm the inflammation in your mouth. And see a gastroenterologist for an evaluation of what’s going on in your gut.
4. Heart disease
Your dentist sees: Gum or periodontal disease in a person who doesn’t fit the profile—say, a younger guy who brushes frequently. Signs like swollen, red gums that bleed, coupled with other cardiovascular risk factors like extra weight and family history can raise a red flag, says Dr. Shamoeil.
What to do: Ask your dentist about treating your dental disease with deep cleanings or other techniques. Doing so could keep you out of the hospital due to heart disease, stroke, or another health issue, according to a recent study in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine.
Then book a visit with your primary care doctor to assess your heart risks. People with periodontal disease have up to triple the risk of having a heart attack or stroke.
Your dentist sees: Slight discolorations where tissues look whiter or redder than normal, often far back in your throat. That’s the way many oral cancers caused by the human papillomavirus (HPV)—on the rise among young men—begin.
What to do: Your dentist may ask you to come back in 7 days to see if anything’s changed. If not, get a biopsy. If you do have cancer, early detection improves the odds of successful treatment.
6. Rheumatoid arthritis (RA)
Your dentist sees: Jaw swelling, and you can feel pain, too. Unlike osteoarthritis, which commonly occurs as you get older, rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is an autoimmune condition that sometimes strikes young people. And half of those with early-onset RA first display symptoms of temporomandibular joint dysfunction, better known as TMJ. In addition to feeling an achy jaw, you also might not be able to open your mouth very wide.
What to do: Take the issue to your family doctor or a medical specialist known as a rheumatologist. They usually diagnose and treat RA.
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