Dental Exams Can Detect Signs Of Disease Elsewhere In The Body
Elizabeth Pratt | December 2021
Experts say infections inside your mouth can cause health problems in other parts of the body and signal diseases such as leukemia and diabetes.
You may want to think twice before delaying your dental checkup.
A regular oral health check from a dentist can do far more for you than just having your teeth cleaned and checking for cavities.
Researchers say it may also help identify early signs of diseases before you even notice symptoms.
“Diabetes, leukemia, and immunocompromised patients will exhibit oral signs [of disease]. Many times, these are the first outward signs of the disease and a keen eye could facilitate the diagnosis,” Nico Geurs, DDS, chair of the University of Alabama at Birmingham Department of Periodontology, and director of the UAB Dentistry Wellness Clinic, told Healthline.
“Oral health is not separate from overall health,” he added. “The same mechanisms of inflammation and infection exist within the mouth as they do in the rest of the body. The mouth, however, presents a unique opportunity for biofilms to form.”
Biofilms on your teeth
Biofilms form when bacteria stick to surfaces in a wet environment and then begin to excrete a glue-like substance.
The mouth presents an environment that is perfect for bacterial growth, and the tooth provides a hard structure bacteria can adhere to for the creation of biofilms.
The body responds to the presence of too much bacteria by becoming inflamed. Gum inflammation, known as gingivitis, is such a response.
Without this kind of defense in place, a person could become very sick or even die due to bacteria in the biofilm.
“Bacteria can enter into the body through migration into the tissue but also when trauma occurs. This can occur when inflamed through tooth brushing or flossing or even when chewing. Whenever your gums bleed while brushing you can imagine that this kind of trauma occurs,” Geurs said.
Signs of disease elsewhere
As well as being a marker of oral diseases, symptoms in the mouth can be indicative of disease elsewhere in the body.
Sheila Brear, BDS, a professor at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF) School of Dentistry, told Healthline that severe and recurring ulcerations in the mouth can be linked to ulcerative colitis or Crohn’s disease.
Oral candidiasis (also known as oral thrush) can be linked to a number of conditions like HIV.
Severe gum disease can sometimes be an indication someone has diabetes.
Erosion or corrosion of the teeth can be associated with reflux and swollen gums that bleed easily, something that can be seen in people with leukemia.
In addition, diseases and disorders of the mouth can impact the overall health of the body.
“One example would be an infected wisdom tooth that remains impacted and can result in a major infection, and in extreme cases, death,” Brear said.
“Another example would be periodontitis [an infection and inflammation that takes place in the gum and bone around the teeth]. The infection can spread locally to the jaws,” Brear added. “The effects of the inflammation and infection may also affect distant sites, for example, the heart, joints, or an unborn child.”
The importance of dental health
According to the American Dental Association (ADA), 100 million Americans fail to visit the dentist every year. The ADA advises regular visits to the dentist, although the exact number will vary from patient to patient.
Brear explained that some people, like those with a dry mouth, are at greater risk of developing tooth decay.
Those people may need to visit their dentist four times per year. Others may only need to visit once or twice per year.
Even if you don’t have any discomfort in your mouth or noticeable symptoms, Brear said it is important to still see a dentist.
“At each dental examination, there is an opportunity for the dentist to examine the oral mucosa, tongue, and other structures in the mouth to rule out signs of oral cancer, infection, and other diseases [or] disorders,” she said.
Leon Assael, DMD, director of community-based education and practice at the UCSF School of Dentistry, said it is crucial not to wait for pain before visiting a dentist.
“Nearly all oral diseases cause absolutely no pain until they are quite advanced,” he told Healthline. “That includes tooth decay, periodontal disease, and oral cancer. Oral cancer is more frequent than other common cancers such as cancer of the cervix. Due to late diagnosis about half of the nearly 50,000 patients diagnosed every year in the U.S. will die of their disease. The only positive way to impact this devastating outcome is with yearly physical examination of the oral cavity, head, and neck, as performed in the dentist’s office. Such examinations, routine in dentistry, are not so routine during general medical visits.”