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11 not-so-obvious reasons to get your teeth cleaned

Your smile can reveal important clues about your overall health. Here’s what your dentist is looking for while you’re in the dental chair.

Did you know that when you walk out of the dentist’s office with clean teeth and a new toothbrush, you’re also leaving with a health check?

It’s true. Your dentist isn’t just looking for gum disease and tooth decay. They’re also keeping an eye out for signs of health conditions that affect your whole body.

“I always tell my patients, ‘You are connected. Your mouth isn’t separate from the rest of you,’” says Shokofeh Tabaraie, D.D.S., of Lakeside Dental in Seattle.

Here are 11 conditions that your dentist might be first to notice.

Looking for the right dental plan to meet your needs or your family’s? Browse your options.

1. Diabetes

Untreated or uncontrolled diabetes can take a toll on the health of your mouth. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, bleeding gums and infections in your mouth can be caused by diabetes. That means that if you have diabetes, your dentist is a crucial member of your care team. Gum disease treatments may even help improve your blood sugar levels.

2. Oral cancer

When your dentist has you open your mouth and say “ahh,” they are looking for signs of cancer in your mouth and throat. These could be white patches, sores, or lumps. The National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research estimates that there will be 53,000 new cases of oral and throat cancer in 2022. It’s important that your dentist is on high alert, because detecting these cancers early increases your likelihood of having a good outcome.

3. Stress and anxiety

Do you grind your teeth or clench your jaw when you’re stressed out or anxious? Either stress-related behavior can wear down your teeth. So, if your dentist asks you about your stress level, it’s because grinding and clenching may be damaging your teeth. That can cause pain and make it hard to eat, Dr. Tabaraie says. Stress also triggers inflammation, which impacts the entire body, including your gums.

4. Acid reflux

Don’t be surprised if your dentist mentions that you might have acid reflux. They are often able to spot early signs of it, because acid from the stomach can destroy the enamel on the inside of the teeth. The dentist may also offer potential solutions like chewing gum after eating, which can increase saliva production and neutralize acid. If that doesn’t do the trick, they might suggest asking your primary care doctor how to treat the underlying cause of the issue.

5. Osteoporosis

Osteoporosis is a condition that causes your bones to become weak and brittle and can put you at an increased risk of falling. Though both men and women can get it, it affects a greater number of women. Fortunately, the early signs of osteoporosis can show up on dental x-rays of your jawbone. If you show signs of this health problem, your dentist will likely send you to your doctor for an evaluation and next steps.

6. Sinus infections

Did you know that sinus infections can mimic or even cause tooth pain? In fact, the pain is so similar that sometimes people schedule an appointment with the dentist when they actually need to see their primary care doctor, Dr. Tabaraie says. Once the dentist rules out teeth and gum issues, they can either refer you to your doctor for further treatment or to an endodontist, a type of specialist who deals with dental pulp, which is located at the center of your teeth and may cause sinus pain if inflamed.

7. Heart disease

Going in for a routine cleaning and dental check may help reduce the risk of heart disease. Will good oral care prevent heart disease? The research isn’t clear – but what is clear is that the same bacteria that is found in the plaque that clogs your blood vessels is also found in your mouth.

8. Eating disorders

Dentists may also uncover signs of a previous or current eating disorder. Anorexia, a type of eating disorder in which a person stops eating regularly to lose weight, can reduce the number of nutrients in the body – nutrients that are essential for good oral health.

Because the disorder has a medical component and a mental health component, your dentist might refer you to your primary care physician to help you get back on track diet-wise, as well as a psychologist who can provide valuable talk therapy.

9. Autoimmune diseases

Autoimmune diseases, ones in which your body mistakenly attacks normal cells, are notoriously tricky to diagnose. (Common symptoms include fatigue, joint pain, and fever.)

If you have an undiagnosed autoimmune disorder like lupus, it can affect several organs in the body and includes symptoms such as inflammation of the gums. It might also be a sign of a flare-up of a condition like Crohn’s disease, which affects the gastrointestinal tract.

If your dentist notices signs or symptoms that could indicate an autoimmune disease, you should book an appointment with your primary care physician.

10. Sleep apnea

If you snore or have trouble sleeping, it could be a sign of a more serious condition called sleep apnea, in which your normal breathing patterns stop and start repeatedly. Having trouble breathing “is a huge thing in the dental world,” Dr. Tabaraie says. It can be caused by enlarged tonsils (those masses of soft tissue in the back of your throat), she says.

If your dentist suspects that you might have sleep apnea, they could refer you to your doctor, who could, in turn, refer you to a specialist, like an ear, nose, and throat doctor, for further treatment.

11. Pregnancy

While your dentist likely won’t be the first to discover you’re expecting, they are likely to see the effects of pregnancy on the inside of your mouth: up to 75% of pregnant women experience red, swollen, or inflamed gums. Pregnant women also have a greater risk of developing cavities.

“Gum disease can be pretty dangerous in pregnant women,” Dr. Tabaraie says. In fact, research shows that women who have chronic gum disease are more likely to have premature babies. It can also lead to low birth weight, Dr. Tabaraie says.

So if you’re pregnant, you should make regular appointments to see your dentist.

Now that you know what your dentist might find in your mouth in addition to your pearly whites, you may want to spend a little more time with your teeth on a daily basis to ensure their ongoing health. A few options:

  • Get regular dental exams. Many people put off care during the pandemic, and now it’s showing up as dental problems, Dr. Tabaraie says. So be sure to keep up with your twice-yearly exams.
  • Wait 30 minutes after eating sugary foods to brush. Why? Sugary foods are acidic, which can damage your teeth.
  • Don’t eat or drink immediately after using mouthwash or toothpaste, because the fluoride in both needs time to settle on your teeth’s enamel and work its magic (fluoride is a type of mineral that helps fight tooth decay). At night, make it the last thing you do before going to bed – instead of having that midnight snack.
  • Get an electric toothbrush. “I’ve seen huge changes in patients when they just make that one change,” says Dr. Tabaraie, “even if they’re not great flossers. It kind of lets you cheat a little bit.” Electric toothbrushes can be found at a range of prices.
  • Drink plenty of water. It not only helps keep your mouth clean but also helps keep your body hydrated.

If the above sounds possible, but you don’t have access to a dental plan, you can explore dental plan options here. It might be the most important decision you make all year.

This advertisement contains information compiled by UnitedHealthcare. UnitedHealthcare does not represent that these are statements of fact. Please consult directly with your primary care physician if you need medical advice.

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Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Diabetes and Oral Health.” May 7, 2021. Retrieved from https://www.cdc.gov/diabetes/managing/diabetes-oral-health.html

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Yu, Bo, and Wang, Cun-Yu. “Osteoporosis and periodontal diseases - An update on their association and mechanistic links.” Periodontology 2000. June 2022. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/35244945/