Have Diabetes? How and Why to Protect Your Teeth

If you have diabetes, the old adage--ignore your teeth and they'll go away--is worth heeding. Your risk for a myriad of dental problems increases if your blood sugar is not in control. Even when you're in good blood sugar control, however, you still should be extra vigilant about oral health, experts say.

High blood sugar puts you at risk for cavities as well as inflammation of the gums, says Rose Gubitosi-Klug, MD, associate professor of pediatric endocrinology at University Hospitals of Cleveland. "If you have this inflammation, even brushing your teeth can lead to bleeding," she says. "If you are bleeding when you brush, see your dentist right away."

Diabetics are also prone to have decreased saliva production, which leads to dry mouth, says Paul Teplitsky, DDS,  chairman of dentistry at Long Island College Hospital in New York City. "And dry mouth disposes a patient to having dental decay at a faster rate than someone with normal saliva quantity," he says. "Decreased saliva production also can cause the soft tissues of the mouth to become more irritated and more tender."

Poor dental health has an effect on diabetes control, too, says Gerald Bernstein, MD, director of the Diabetes Management Program at the Friedman Diabetes Institute at Beth Israel Medical Center. "It's essential to keep the teeth clean to help stay in good blood sugar control," he says.

Prevent Problems with Your Teeth and Gums

Be vigilant about brushing and flossing. Aim to do both at least twice a day, says Gubitosi-Klug.

Stay on top of dental appointments. Make sure your dentist knows you have diabetes. He may want to see you a little bit more often.

Eat onions. Believe it or not, onions are good way to neutralize bacteria in the mouth, says Svetlana Kogan, MD, founder of Doctors at Trump Place in New York City. Now, no one's expecting you to eat an onion. But you can get all the benefits by making "onion juice" by pouring a liter of boiled water over a chopped up onion and letting it steep for a day or so. "Drink a little of this each day," Kogan advises. "It may seem a little strange but people get used to it and it really works."

Use a fluoride mouthwash, says Bernstein. This strengthens the enamel on the teeth and can help reduce cavities. Some dentists also may opt to apply fluoride topically at a visit.

● Though a fluoride rinse can be helpful, steer clear of rinses that contain alcohol, says Thomas Connelly, DDS, a cosmetic dentist in private practice in New York City. Alcohol not only can be very drying, which can aggravate an already existing problem with decreased saliva production, but it also has been linked to oral cancer, Connelly says.

● If you need oral surgery, be sure to check with your diabetes health care provider beforehand. You may be prescribed a course of pre-op antibiotics, says Connelly. People with diabetes can have delayed healing so close monitoring after oral surgery is essential.