Diabetes is a complex and pervasive condition that may impact every aspect of an individual patient’s health. Changing blood sugar levels can take a toll on many parts of the body, including the teeth and gums. Patients with diabetes thus face some particular concerns when dealing with their oral health that must be taken into account on all levels of care and treatment. The good news is that for most patients with diabetes, the interaction between diabetes and dental health is manageable with a little care and planning.

Let’s start with a very basic and perhaps oversimplified explanation of what diabetes is. Diabetes is a chronic health condition that affects the metabolism, in particular the ways in which your body processes food. When you eat, your body converts food into sugars, which are then released into the bloodstream. In response to rising blood sugar levels, your body then releases a substance called insulin, which helps transfer the blood sugar to the cells that need it for energy. In diabetic patients, however, the body either can’t produce enough insulin or can’t use its insulin effectively. This leads to a buildup of sugars in the blood, which in turn can cause serious problems such as heart disease, vision problems, and kidney failure. Diabetes is often treated via injections of insulin and a regulated diet, which help keep the blood sugar at healthy levels.

So what is the link between diabetes and dental health? As you might imagine, an excess of sugar in the bloodstream will affect the health of your mouth, teeth, and gums. Diabetic patients may experience a number of oral health complications related to their condition:

  • Tooth decay is a common problem. The excess sugar in the bloodstream can feed the bacteria in your mouth that in turn become plaque and tartar. If left untreated, these conditions can lead to tooth decay, permanent tooth damage, or even tooth loss.
  • As a related issue, the buildup of plaque and tartar caused by diabetes can also lead to gum diseases like gingivitis. As with the above example, if left untreated gingivitis can become periodontitis, which can do permanent damage to the jaw, gums, and teeth, potentially result in tooth loss or worse.
  • Thrush is not a medical condition we think of often these days, but for diabetic patients, it poses an extra risk to their oral health. Thrush is a bacterial infection caused by a yeast called Candida albicans. Diabetic patients are especially prone to thrush, which manifests as painful white or red patches inside the mouth.
  • Dry mouth is a problem for oral health. If the mouth doesn’t produce enough saliva, teeth and gums may weaken or become infected, leading in turn to cavities, gum disease, and potentially permanent damage. Diabetic patients are especially prone to dry mouth.

So with all these additional risks in mind, what can diabetic patients do to best manage their oral health? The good news is that for most patients with diabetes, caring for the teeth and gums is fairly straightforward. Following your doctor’s guidance for managing your diabetes and making a commitment to do so every day is a big part of it. A regular and effective brushing and flossing routine is the most important single component of oral health for any patient, but especially one with diabetes. Brushing and flossing at least twice a day is a must. Make sure your dentist knows that you have diabetes and the details of your condition; they can give you advice for your unique situation. A healthy diet is always good for oral health, so again listen to your doctor. And finally: avoid tobacco use. Tobacco has an established negative impact on oral health, and doubly so for diabetic patients. By giving up tobacco, you’ll help your health overall and your oral health in particular.

Diabetes is a chronic condition and a lifelong one for many patients. Even with that having been said, there’s no reason to let it define you. By committing to managing your condition–including your oral health–you can lead the life you want even with diabetes.