Diabetes can affect many different parts of your body – your skin, your nerves, and vital organs like your heart and kidneys. Diabetes can even affect your mouth, increasing your risk of several oral health issues, especially gum disease.

Why is that?

Below, we explain the relationship between your oral health and your blood sugar, and symptoms of gum disease to watch out for. We also cover what treatment involves when you have both gum disease and diabetes.

How does diabetes affect oral health?

Diabetes increases your risk of tooth decay

Tooth decay is caused by acid-producing bacteria that live in plaque. Plaque is a sticky substance that is constantly forming on your teeth and gums. These bacteria feed on the sugar in our food and drinks, and they produce acid that can start to cause tooth damage.

If you have high blood sugar, you may also have high sugar content in your saliva. This gives the bacteria more to feed on, which can cause plaque to form faster and increase the risk of tooth damage.

Diabetes increases your risk of gingivitis

Without oral health habits like regular brushing, flossing and dental checkups, plaque can harden into tartar. If plaque and tartar form near the gumline, they can irritate your gums and lead to gingivitis, which is the earliest stage of gum disease. High blood sugar weakens the immune system, making it easier for an infection like gingivitis to begin.

Diabetes increases your risk of advanced gum disease

The harder it is for your body to fight infections, the more likely it is that gingivitis may progress into more advanced gum disease, and the more severe it’s likely to be. Left untreated, advanced gum disease can lead to pain, tooth loss and other issues. The infection may also cause your blood sugar to rise further.

Diabetes can increase your risk of infection

If you have uncontrolled diabetes, it takes longer for blood to flow to deliver oxygen and nutrients to a diabetic wound. Your risk of infection and other complications also increases with any procedure, including more advanced dental treatment like getting a tooth pulled or having a dental implant placed.

Other diabetic oral health issues: Dry mouth, bad breath, thrush and mouth sores

Some people with diabetes experience dry mouth, which happens when your body doesn’t make enough saliva. Saliva helps rinse acid and bacteria off of your tongue and teeth, so dry mouth can increase your risk of bad breath, tooth decay, gum disease and thrush – a fungal infection that causes painful white or red sores to form in the mouth or tongue.

How common is gum disease in people with diabetes?

According to the American Dental Association, gum disease affects about 22% of people with diabetes. And about 20% of total tooth loss is linked to diabetes.

How does someone with diabetes know if they have gum disease?

Symptoms of gum disease are the same regardless of whether you have diabetes. Healthy gums are light pink, firm and fit snugly around teeth. Infected gums may bleed, be swollen and appear dull red, bright red or purple. Early on, gum disease often causes no pain, making visual symptoms important to pay attention to.

Gum disease is more treatable the earlier it’s caught, which is why regular dental checkups are so important. But if you notice changes in your mouth between appointments, schedule a visit as soon as you can to get checked out. And make sure your dentist knows that you have diabetes.

How is gum disease treated when you have diabetes?

How gum disease is treated depends on how advanced it is. The first step is a thorough evaluation by a dentist.  You may need a deep cleaning (called scaling and root planing) to remove bacteria and irritants like tartar. If you have a HealthPartners Dental insurance plan, you probably have a benefit that provides 100% in-network coverage for gum disease treatment if you’re living with diabetes and at risk of gum disease.

To prevent gum disease, you have to manage both your diabetes and your oral health. When it comes to your oral health, you should stay on top of preventive dental care like brushing twice a day, flossing once a day and getting regular dental checkups. Checkups are particularly important because in addition to helping catch oral issues early, you’ll also get a deeper cleaning than you can get at home.

Controlling your diabetes means keeping your blood sugar levels in your target range, which may require:

  • Dietary changes – These can include managing portion sizes and the amount of carbohydrates you eat.
  • Exercise – Physical activity lowers your blood sugar and helps your body use insulin.
  • Medicine – If diet and exercise aren’t enough, diabetes medicine can also help lower your blood sugar.

Take control of your oral health

Taking good care of your teeth and gums and staying on top of your preventive care can help keep diabetes from affecting your oral health. But if you have oral symptoms you’re concerned about or you want advice about your dental care, a visit with a dentist is the best next step. They can check for gum disease and other issues, and give you recommendations that take your diabetes into account.