A pretty smile that reveals shiny white teeth is more than just a pleasant cosmetic feature. In fact, the health and condition of your teeth can signal a lot of information about your underlying health. Even if your smile appears healthy, some conditions of your teeth and gums can still indicate a more serious underlying problem. Below are some common tooth, gum, and mouth ailments and what they might signal.
Tooth issues can affect the enamel or the roots. The most common ailment is tooth decay, where bacteria in the mouth erodes the enamel and causes cavities. While most tooth decay is caused by poor dental hygiene, such as not brushing enough, other factors can also cause decay. Many of these factors could also signal an underlying health issue, including:
Saliva helps prevent tooth decay, and gum disease, by washing bacteria off the surface of the teeth.
- Dry mouth is usually temporary and caused by medications, illnesses – like the common cold, and lifestyle habits like smoking and caffeine and alcohol consumption
- Long-term dry mouth could signal an illness such as an autoimmune disease, or a physical issue causing the salivary glands to malfunction
- Both temporary and long-term dry mouth can cause dental problems
- Symptoms of dry mouth can include a hot, sticky feeling in your mouth, a rough tongue, cracked lips, and frequent mouth sores
- Short term treatments include increasing your water intake, using sugarless candy or gum to stimulate saliva production, sleeping with a humidifier, and eliminating caffeine, alcohol, and tobacco
If dry mouth persists for more than a few weeks, you should consult your physician.
Chips, cracks, and erosion to the enamel allow the bacteria in your mouth to gain access the softer tooth material underneath, leading to tooth decay.
- Common causes of damaged enamel are tooth grinding, injury, and acid erosion
- Tooth grinding can be a sign of stress, which can put you at higher risk of other health issues
- Symptoms of tooth grinding include pain in your jaw, deep grooves in your molars, and cracked or chipped teeth
- Acidic foods, like many fruits, can cause acid erosion of the enamel, as can a digestive condition called acid reflux
- Acid reflux occurs when the acid in your stomach comes back up to the esophagus. If that stomach acid makes it to your mouth, it can damage the enamel of your teeth
- Symptoms of acid erosion include discolored teeth, and blunt or rounded edges to the teeth
- Custom bite guards and enamel-building products can reduce the damage caused by erosion and grinding
- If you notice that you are grinding your teeth, or that you have heartburn more often than once a month, consult your physician
Gum Problems and Gum Disease
The gums are the foundation upon which your teeth rest. Not only do they help anchor your teeth into your jawbone, they also provide a blood supply with nutrients to keep your teeth healthy.
Gum disease, also known as gingivitis, is generally caused by the same bacteria that cause tooth decay. Good dental hygiene can prevent gingivitis, but other factors can contribute to gum problems, including:
- Dry mouth can cause bacteria to attack the gums as well as the teeth
- High blood sugar, associated with diabetes, can actually contribute to gum disease because the bacteria in your mouth can feed on the sugar in your blood
- Acid reflux can damage not only the enamel, but the gum tissue, causing more gum infections
- Symptoms of gum disease include: red, swollen, or bleeding gums
Regular brushing and flossing can help prevent gum disease.
Healthy gums are pink (about the color of bubblegum) and firm, and the color should be consistent throughout. Pale gums are lighter than bubblegum and almost white where they meet the teeth.
- Pale gums are generally a sign of anemia, caused by an iron deficiency or some other health issue
- Other symptoms of anemia include: fatigue, sensitivity to cold, and an increased heart rate
- Anemia is a potentially life-threatening condition, with several causes
- If you have any symptoms of anemia, consult your doctor immediately
Other Mouth Issues
Other mouth issues include oral thrush, frequent mouth sores, and tooth loss or loose teeth in adults.
- Oral thrush is a yeast infection in the mouth that is usually kept in check by the immune system
- Thrush appears as a white, sticky coating on the tongue and possibly the sides of your mouth
- The presence of thrush could indicate a suppressed immune system, such as occurs with HIV or some types of cancer
- Certain antibiotics can also cause oral thrush, as can certain aerosol respiratory inhalers
If you develop oral thrush for any reason, consult your physician or dentist
Frequent Mouth Sores
- Mouth sores, also called mouth ulcers, are red, painful sores in the mouth, and on the gums
- Mouth ulcers are most commonly caused by irritation to the area or by viral infections
- Mouth sores generally last a week and resolve on their own
Mouth sores that last longer than a week, or that occur on a regular basis, could indicate:
- A suppressed immune system
- A food allergy
- Vitamin or mineral deficiencies
- An inflammatory condition such as Inflammatory Bowel Disease or Celiac Disease
- An autoimmune disease
If you experience frequent mouth sores, contact your physician or dentist.
Tooth Loss/Loose Teeth
Losing your adult teeth can be a sign of poor dental hygiene, but may also indicate:
- Bone loss from osteoporosis
- Damage from a bone infection
- Bones weakened by cancer
If you notice your teeth are loose, consult your physician or dentist immediately.