What Your Mouth Can Tell You About Your Health
Dental talk: yawn, right? Maybe not--oral health just got a whole lot more interesting, thanks to research showing that what goes on in your mouth can directly reflect what's happening elsewhere in your body, from your brain all the way down to your private parts. And conditions such as gum disease can be precursors to scary stuff like cognitive decline, diabetes, and certain STDs. "Any time you have an infection in your mouth, it doesn't just stay there," says periodontist Sally Cram, D.D.S., a spokesperson for the American Dental Association (ADA). "It can travel through your bloodstream, affecting your organs and immune system."
It's too bad, then, that fewer adults than ever regularly visit the dentist, according to a new survey by the ADA. Blowing off your twice-a-year checkup means you could be missing a manageable mouth problem, allowing it to snowball into a serious oral--and possible medical--situation, says Stuart Froum, D.D.S., president of the American Academy of Periodontology. Get back in that dental chair and keep an eye out for these subtle warning signs.
They aren't just an aesthetic oh-no. Though they're not dangerous on their own, stains typically crop up on plaque--clumps of sticky bacteria (and not the healthy kind present in every mouth), says dentist Carolyn Taggart-Burns, D.D.S., a spokesperson for the Academy of General Dentistry. A smile full of splotchy teeth means a mouth teeming with gnarly microbes, too many of which can lead to gum disease.
Hot or cold drinks or food can make teeth tingle. But if you're getting more "ouch!" than "oh," you might be harboring a cavity that could, untreated, spread to surrounding nerve tissue. The trick is to catch it early on--by the time you're in serious pain, it might be too late for a filling, says Taggart-Burns. Hello, root canal.
Sure, it could be the garlic bread you scarfed last night. But if your oral odor stays around for more than two weeks, there might be another culprit: gum disease. When the bacteria that cause the condition mix with healthy mouth bacteria, says Froum, it creates volatile sulfur compounds (or, as you know it, eau de rotten egg).
Spot a few specks of blood when you rinse after brushing or flossing? You might just be an overzealous cleaner. If, however, you routinely spy more tinted than clear spit in the sink, see your dentist. Bloody gums could be a sign of oral inflammation or gingivitis, says Cram.
Healthy gums are pale pink and look like mini sheaths for your teeth. If your chompers suddenly seem smaller, your gums could be inflamed. If they look bigger--or if the tooth area closest to the gum line seems whiter--you could have bigger issues. Gum disease is the number one cause of receeding gums, which leaves exposed roots vulnerable to decay, says Froum.
Gross but true: Normal tongues look a little hairy. If yours is on the bald side, you might have a vitamin B deficiency. If it looks whitish, it could be due to inflammation, dry mouth, or even. . .a yeast infection. Yep, on your tongue. It's called oral thrush, says Cram, and you'll need a D.D.S. to diagnose and treat it.
Canker and cold sores are unsightly--and uncomfortable!--but they typically resolve on their own without doing lasting damage. But if you spot a whitish, raised sore in or around your mouth that persists for more than three weeks, see a dentist, says Taggart-Burns. Oral HPV infections are rising fast among young women and can lead to oral cancer. One more reason to practice A-plus dental hygiene: Per a recent study in Cancer Prevention Research, poor oral health ups your risk for oral HPV.