Like most people, you probably visit your dentist with one goal: to keep your teeth healthy. But a trip to the dental office can reveal way more than cavities.
A routine oral checkup can offer hints about your overall health that have nothing to do with your teeth. Indeed, dentists can detect medical issues before you experience symptoms (and possibly even before your doctor discovers there's a problem).
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Here, New York-based cosmetic dentist Daniel Rubinshtein, DDS, shares why your mouth can contain clues about your general state of health and which medical conditions your dentist can identify during a dental examination.
The mouth contains bacteria, and it's also the entry point to the digestive and respiratory tracts, Dr. Rubinshtein says. While not all bacteria is bad, some can cause disease.
Saliva also guards against bad bacteria, by washing away food and neutralizing acids produced by harmful mouth bacteria, Dr. Rubinshtein adds.
Conversely, certain chronic health conditions, such as diabetes and HIV/AIDS, can decrease the body's defense against infection, which may worsen oral health problems, according to the Mayo Clinic.
To prevent any bad bacteria from festering and maintain a healthy mouth microbiome, it’s imperative to brush and floss twice per day (the American Dental Association recommends flossing once per day) and eat a well-balanced diet, Dr. Rubinshtein says.
5 Health Issues Your Dentist Can Spot
While a dentist can't officially diagnose any of the following disorders, they're often the first to spot early signs of such health problems and can refer you to a doctor or proper specialist for further evaluation.
1. Heart Disease
Periodontal disease is an infection and inflammation of the gums and bone that surround the teeth, per the CDC. And when it's present, it "may point to heart disease," Dr. Rubinshtein says.
For dentists, plaque accumulation is a clue that can suggest cardiovascular issues. "The buildup of plaque on the teeth and gum line can be indicative of buildup in your arteries," Dr. Rubinshtein says. However, in some cases, the causal relationship may be reversed. That is, plaque buildup could actually contribute to chronic inflammation, which may (in the long run) cause heart disease, he says.
In fact, certain types of cardiovascular problems such as endocarditis (an infection of the inner lining of your heart chambers or valves), heart disease, clogged arteries and stroke might be connected to inflammation initiated by oral bacteria, according to the Mayo Clinic.
Sometimes dentists can be the first to detect signs of diabetes in people who are undiagnosed with this metabolic disease, Dr. Rubinshtein says. During dental checkups, "dentists may notice symptoms like chronic bad breath, thrush [a fungal infection], dry mouth and gum disease," he says.
All these oral conditions are more common in individuals with diabetes. That's because diabetes lowers your body's resistance to infection, which results in an increased risk of gum problems such as periodontal disease, per the Mayo Clinic.
Spotting this serious illness — which, left unchecked, can be life threatening — is especially crucial since a staggering quarter of American adults (that's 7.2 million people) aren't even aware they have diabetes, according to a 2020 report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
People who properly manage their diabetes tend to have healthier oral outcomes, while those who take care of their teeth tend to have better blood sugar control.
To prevent the oral side effects that can come with diabetes, make sure to floss and swish with a mouthwash twice a day, Dr. Rubinshtein says.
He recommends rinsing with Hello's Bye Bye Bacteria Mouthwash ($17.99 for a 3-pack on Amazon.com) which is formulated with zinc and tea tree oil and made without alcohol, dyes, artificial flavors, artificial sweeteners or sulfates.
3. Acid Reflux
While the telltale symptom of gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) — a chronic form of acid reflux — is often habitual heartburn, sometimes your dentist can decipher other clues of this condition by the state of your mouth.
When acid flows from your stomach to your esophagus (i.e., acid reflux), it can cause "wear and erosion on the enamel of teeth in the molar region," Dr. Rubinshtein says. In addition, your dentist may also note lesions on your throat, where acid has aggravated the throat tissue.
Along with heartburn, tooth enamel erosion and throat irritation, other symptoms of GERD to look out for include, per the Mayo Clinic:
- Regurgitation of food or sour liquid
- Upper abdominal or chest pain
- Trouble swallowing
- Sensation of a lump in your throat
- An ongoing cough
- Inflammation of the vocal cords
- New or worsening asthma
To reduce the damage of reflux and prevent your tooth enamel from eroding further, try avoiding (or limiting) acidic drinks like soda, use toothpaste with fluoride and consume less sugar, Dr. Rubinshtein says.
Eating disorders are mental health disorders that can have serious effects on your body — even your teeth. Here are some of the changes that your dentist may spot during an exam.
- Tooth erosion: "Similar to acid reflux, someone with bulimia may have erosion on their teeth or may also experience yellowing," Dr. Rubinshtein says. This usually relates to the frequent vomiting that happens in bulimia. When stomach acid washes over the teeth, it can destroy tooth enamel, changing the color, shape and length of teeth and causing them to become brittle and weak, according to the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA).
- Bleeding gums: Gums and other soft tissue may become red, swollen and bleed easily due to nutrient deficiencies of calcium, iron and B vitamins, per NEDA.
- Dry mouth: People living with eating disorders may be dealing with chronic dry mouth (which is often accompanied by bad breath) as their salivary glands may swell and cease to function properly, according to NEDA.
- Soft palate damage: Habitual purging may produce redness, scratches and cuts inside the mouth, particularly on the soft palate, i.e., the upper part of the mouth, per NEDA.
If you believe you have an eating disorder, contact the NEDA Helpline for support, resources and treatment options.
5. Oral Cancer
Dentists can be your first line of defense when it comes to detecting oral cancer.
In its early stages, oral cancer can be painless and present with few obvious symptoms, which is why it often goes unnoticed, according to the Oral Cancer Foundation (OCF). This is what also makes it especially dangerous. Because oral cancer is often not diagnosed until it's developed into later stages (i.e., metastasized to another body part like the lymph nodes in the neck), death rates are particularly high, per the OCF.
The good news: Your prognosis is significantly better if oral cancer is found early and only localized to the intraoral area. This is where your dentist's keen eye comes into play. Early warning signs of oral cancer that your dentist may discover include, per the OCF:
- White or red patches of tissue in the mouth
- Small, indurated ulcers that look like a common canker sore
- A painless lump or mass which can be felt inside the mouth or neck
- Pain or difficulty swallowing, speaking or chewing
- Wart-like masses in the mouth region
- Numbness in the oral/facial region
- Unilateral persistent earache
Additionally, "swollen lymph nodes will also be red-flagged by your dentist for further inspection," Dr. Rubinshtein says.
How Often Should You See Your Dentist?
Now that you know that regular dental visits are vital for optimizing your oral health and maintaining overall health, you might be wondering how often you should be sitting in your dentist's chair.
While everyone's situation is unique, the rule of thumb is to visit your dentist once or twice a year for a routine checkup and cleaning, according to the American Dental Association (ADA).
You dentist may recommend more frequent visits if you are at a higher risk for certain health concerns.
Is this an emergency? If you are experiencing serious medical symptoms, please see the National Library of Medicine’s list of signs you need emergency medical attention or call 911.