How does diabetes affect our dental health?

Almost 600 million of us may be living with type 2 diabetes by 2035. Alarming statistic, isn't it? This month World Diabetes Day (14 November) will serve as a timely reminder of the need to encourage healthy eating habits in young children - a vital key to halting this 'epidemic'. The rocketing figures are having a huge impact on both our health and the public purse, with more than £2 million spent on diabetes drugs every day in primary care.

But there are solutions. A healthy lifestyle and healthy eating - that include leafy vegetables, fresh fruit, whole grains, lean meat, unsweetened yoghurt and nuts - can prevent up to 70% of type 2 diabetes. A healthy diet is also the key to successful management of the disease. Good diabetes management reduces the risk of further health complications. Simply being aware of the risk factors can help to minimise them and avoid further complications, such as health problems affecting eyes, and problems with the heart, kidneys, nerves and feet, sexual dysfunction, depression - and, surprisingly, our dental health.

If not managed well, diabetes can lead to gum disease and even tooth loss. Statistics show that people with diabetes are twice as likely to developgingivitis and periodontitis. Gingivitis is an early stage of gum disease causing inflammation of the gums, irritation, redness and swelling. Untreated, this can turn into periodontitis, a much more severe form of gum disease that leads to inflammation of the tissue around the teeth, often causing shrinkage of the gums and loosening of the teeth.

In fact, the relationship between gum disease and diabetes is a two-way thing - so, not only are people with diabetes more susceptible to gum disease, but gum disease has the potential to affect blood sugar levels too. Both type 1 and type 2 can cause blood sugar levels to soar affecting all parts of the body, including the teeth and gums. So you'll want to take special care of your teeth and gums.

Dental therapist Anne Connor explains: 'If you have diabetes, it's important to manage your blood sugar. Over time, increased levels of blood glucose can cause related dental health risks and so professional teeth cleaning on a regular basis by your dental therapist or dentist plays a significant role in improving blood sugar control.'

Key problematic areas to watch out for in the mouth include:

  • Dry mouth (or xerostomia) that stems saliva flow and can lead to tooth decay, create problems with chewing, eating and swallowing, and cause soreness, ulcers and infections
  • Inflammation of gums
  • Thrush. People with diabetes who often take antibiotics to fight infections are more likely to get this fungal infection of the mouth and tongue. The fungus thrives on the high levels of sugar in the saliva of people with uncontrolled diabetes. It can give your mouth and tongue a burning feeling.

Anne adds: 'The good news is that you can take preventative measures in order to avoid these problems. By getting into good dental hygiene habits, diabetes - and all its related health issues - becomes easier to manage. Keeping blood sugar levels stabilised is a good starting point. Also, try to wait at least 30 minutes after eating before brushing to protect any tooth enamel that's been softened by acid in the food and, if necessary, use a toothbrush with soft bristles. Flossing is essential and, if you use a mouthwash, avoid those containing alcohol. Smoking is obviously a definite no-no.'

Anne also suggests that people with diabetes make sure they tell dental teams of their condition before treatment begins. She says: 'Be sure to let them know you have diabetes and what medicines you take to control it. Also, if your blood sugar level is off kilter - and if you take insulin - let them know when you last took it.

Having a twice-yearly dental health check up with your dental therapist or dentist is important, but you may have to visit more regularly, depending upon your condition.

'The team will always make sure that any complex dental procedures will be kept as short and stress-free as possible. A morning appointment may suit many people with diabetes because blood glucose levels tend to be under better control at this time of day. If you have a scheduled appointment, eat and take your medications as directed.

'Some dental practices even offer screening for diabetes in the form of blood glucose testing so be sure to ask. Essentially, a combination of regular screening and preventative measures are all that's needed to manage the disease and keep the associated health risks at bay.'

Don't stress!

A number of factors have been suggested as heightening an individual's risk of developing diabetes - some of which are controllable, such as weight and exercise, but others are more difficult to manage. New research has even suggested that high work-related stress levels may be a contributing factor, which may significantly increase the risk of developing diabetes. According to Diabetes UK, stress has also been proven to instigate changes in blood sugar levels - which can cause problems for people with diabetes. A study found that those under high pressure at work, who felt that they had little control over their activities, were at a 45% higher risk of developing type 2 diabetes than people who were subjected to less work-related stress.