Why are people with diabetes more likely to develop oral health problems?
The link between diabetes and oral health problems is high blood sugar. If blood sugar is poorly controlled, oral health problems are more likely to develop. This is because uncontrolled diabetes weakens white blood cells, which are the body’s main defense against bacterial infections that can occur in the mouth.
Just as studies have shown that controlling blood sugar levels lowers the risk of major organ complications of diabetes — such as eye, heart, and nerve damage — so to can diabetes protect against the development of oral health problems.
What oral health problems are associated with diabetes?
People with diabetes face a higher risk of:
- Dry mouth: Uncontrolled diabetes can decrease saliva (spit) flow, resulting in dry mouth. Dry mouth can further lead to soreness, ulcers, infections and tooth decay.
- Gum inflammation (gingivitis) and periodontitis: Besides weakening white blood cells, another complication of diabetes is that it causes blood vessels to thicken. This slows the flow of nutrients to and waste products from body tissues, including the mouth. When this combination of events, the body loses its ability to fight infections. Since periodontal disease is a bacterial infection, people with uncontrolled diabetes might experience more frequent and more severe gum disease.
- Poor healing of oral tissues: People with uncontrolled diabetes do not heal quickly after oral surgery or other dental procedures because blood flow to the treatment site can be damaged.
- Thrush: People with diabetes who frequently take antibiotics to fight various infections are especially prone to developing a fungal infection of the mouth and tongue. The fungus thrives on the high glucose levels in the saliva of people with uncontrolled diabetes. Wearing dentures (especially when they are worn constantly) can also lead to fungal infections.
- Burning mouth and/or tongue: This condition is caused by the presence of thrush.
People with diabetes who smoke are at an even higher risk — up to 20 times more likely than non-smokers to develop thrush and periodontal disease. Smoking also seems to impair blood flow to the gums, which might affect wound healing in this tissue area.