13 Warning Signs Your Teeth Are Trying to Send You
Clues to your overall health—including potential problems—are being told by your teeth.
You already know how important it is to keep your teeth healthy for good oral hygiene (and to avoid pesky cavities!). But beyond your dental health, your teeth can also tell you a lot about your overall health.
"A trip to the dentist could be like the canary in a coal mine for somebody who has an undetected medical issue," says Leena Palomo, DDS, MSD, professor of periodontics at Case Western Reserve University. "Oral health and systemic health are tremendously linked, which is why dental care is an integral part of overall well-being."
In fact, one dentist in New York City reported seeing a spike in tooth fractures this year, which she attributes to COVID-induced stress, poor posture brought on by working from home (which can lead to teeth grinding at night), and lack of restorative sleep that causes clenching.
"When I reopened my practice in early June, the fractures started coming in: at least one a day, every single day that I've been in the office," Tammy Chen, DDS, told The New York Times. "On average, I'm seeing three to four; the bad days are six-plus fractures." Your teeth and the gums surrounding them can also give more subtle signals about your overall health. Here are 13 warning signs your teeth may be sending you right now. And for more on keeping your teeth healthy, here are 25 Things You're Doing That Would Horrify Your Dentist.
You are prone to heartburn.
If you have gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), also known as heartburn, your dentist may notice before you do.
Heartburn causes stomach acid to flow into your mouth, which diminishes the enamel of your teeth, the Mayo Clinic says. And according to a 2012 review in the International Journal of Dentistry, numerous laboratory studies and clinical studies in adults and children have demonstrated a relationship between GERD and tooth erosion.
"The digestive system starts in the mouth," says Palomo. "Dentists can see evidence of enamel breakdown with any regurgitus coming from the stomach contents up through the esophagus and into the mouth." This is also why dentists are often the first to notice signs of bulimia, an eating disorder characterized by binging and purging (often through vomiting). And for other signals coming from your midsection, check out This Is Everything Your Stomach Is Trying to Tell You About Your Health.
You may be at risk for heart disease.
If you have gum disease—a common infection that causes swollen and tender gums—your heart might be in trouble. Some research shows that heart disease, clogged arteries, and stroke may be linked to the inflammation and infections caused by oral bacteria, but the connection is not yet fully understood, according to the Mayo Clinic.
Patients with gum disease had a significantly higher risk for having their first heart attack than healthy patients, even after researchers adjusted for many confounding factors such as smoking, education, and diabetes, a large 2016 study published in the journal Circulation found. And for all the ways you are putting your ticker at risk, check out The 20 Worst Habits That Are Destroying Your Heart.
You may have diabetes.
If you're prone to cavities and a diet high in sugar or poor oral hygiene isn't to blame, it's worth looking at your blood sugar levels. Whether you have type 1 or type 2 diabetes, you have a higher risk of tooth decay and cavities when your blood sugar is higher, the Mayo Clinic says.
When your blood sugar level is elevated, more sugar and starches interact with bacteria naturally found in your mouth, forming plaque that can lead to cavities and gum disease. What's more, a small body of evidence shows that gum disease negatively affects diabetes outcomes, including glycemic control, diabetes complications, and development of type 2 (and potentially gestational) diabetes, per a 2013 review published in the Journal of Clinical Periodontology.
You could be at risk of kidney disease.
Poor dental health spells trouble for anyone—and particularly for those who have kidney issues. Chronic kidney disease patients with severe gum disease had a 41 percent risk of death within 10 years compared to a 32 percent risk in patients with healthy gums in a large 2015 study of 13,784 people published in the Journal of Clinical Periodontology.
"Periodontitis [gum disease] may add to the systemic inflammatory burden in individuals with chronic kidney disease, thereby contributing to an increased mortality rate," the study says. In fact, the researches found that gum disease may contribute to an increased risk of all-cause mortality to a similar extent as diabetes, a well-known risk factor for those with chronic kidney disease. And for more health hints from these particular organs, here are 25 Warning Signs Your Kidneys Send You.
You are drinking too many sugary beverages.
If your teeth are extra sensitive or you get cavities often, you may blame your favorite desserts—but also think about what you're drinking. Both sweet treats and beverages can enable bacteria and acids, which are the two big culprits of tooth decay and cavities.
The bacteria in your teeth feed on the sugar in sweet drinks. According to the University of Illinois at Chicago College of Dentistry, this creates plaque that allows bacteria to hang around your teeth for longer, eventually making acids that cause cavities. Many sweet beverages, including soft drinks and even fruit juices, are also acidic and can wear down your teeth's enamel.
Per a 2016 systematic review published in the journal Advances in Nutrition, limiting sugars that you consume without fiber—like those in sweet drinks or added sugars such as honey—to less than 5 percent of total calories may help to prevent cavities. For a 2,000 calorie diet, that equates to fewer than 25 grams.
You may have an autoimmune disease.
Your saliva plays an important role in maintaining oral health by washing away food particles from the teeth and gums and providing teeth-strengthening minerals like calcium and phosphate, per the National Institutes of Health. Dry mouth occurs when you don't have enough saliva to keep your mouth wet, and it can occasionally happen to anyone—for instance, when you're stressed out or nervous.
However, persistent dry mouth can be a sign of a larger issue, and can increase your risk of tooth decay or fungal infections. And according to the Mayo Clinic, dry mouth may be caused by diabetes, stroke, yeast infection (thrush) in your mouth, Alzheimer's disease, tobacco and alcohol use, or even an autoimmune disease like Sjögren's syndrome.
Sjögren's syndrome occurs when your immune system attacks its own healthy cells that make saliva and tears, and it often occurs with other disorders like lupus and rheumatoid arthritis. If you have dry mouth, your dentist may refer you to your primary physician for a consultation.
You could have nerve damage.
Dry mouth may also be caused by damage to the nerves that direct salivary glands to create saliva, the National Institutes of Health says. If you recently had an injury to the head or neck and are experiencing dry mouth, talk to your doctor. "There are many traumatic problems that can affect nerve endings," says Palomo.
That said, there are several other possible causes of dry mouth as well, including the side effects of certain medications (such as those used for high blood pressure, depression, and bladder-control issues), radiation therapy, and chemotherapy.
You're using the wrong kind of mouthwash.
If you experience tooth sensitivity when eating ice cream or drinking cold water, you may need to switch the mouthwash you use. Some mouthwashes contain acids that can exacerbate tooth sensitivity over time if your tooth enamel is worn out, and further damage the middle layer of the tooth, according to the Cleveland Clinic.
If this is the case for you, ask your dentist about using a neutral fluoride solution. It'll also be important to rule out several other factors that may lead to tooth sensitivity, including brushing too hard, gum disease, cracked teeth, grinding, teeth whitening products, plaque buildup, and acidic foods. Tooth sensitivity is at its highest between the ages of 25 and 30.
You're deficient in Vitamin D.
Vitamin D deficiency has been associated with several oral health issues, including cavities, gum disease, certain oral cancers, and even the death of bone tissue in the jaw, according to a 2020 review in the journal Nutrients. Maintaining appropriate vitamin D levels has been associated with better oral development and health throughout life, note the researchers.
What's more, a 2018 study published in BMJ Open Diabetes Research & Care found that while both gum disease and vitamin D deficiency increase type 2 diabetes risk, the risk is greater than the sum of each when they occur together. Getting enough vitamin D is important for not only your dental health, but also your overall health. And for more ways you can tell if you are lacking in this essential nutrient, check out these 20 Symptoms of Vitamin D Deficiency.
You might need to get tested for HIV.
Because HIV/AIDS weakens the immune system and makes it harder to fight off infections, individuals with the virus are at higher risk of oral health problems, according to the National Institutes of Health. In particular, people with HIV/AIDS commonly experience chronic dry mouth, gingivitis, bone loss around the teeth, canker sores, oral warts, fever blisters, oral thrush, rough and white patches on the tongue, and cavities.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control & Prevention recommends that anyone between the ages of 13 and 64 get tested for HIV at least once. Those at higher risk should be tested annually. Remember: You can have HIV without realizing it, so it's important to follow up on clues your dental health may give you. And for more helpful information, sign up for our daily newsletter.
You're not getting enough calcium.
It's worth looking at your entire diet if you're experiencing routine cavities. Women with the most cavities had significantly lower calcium and vitamin D levels—and significantly higher intake of protein, soft drinks, and sugar—than other women in a 2014 study of 106 women published in the journal Clinical Oral Investigations.
"Although caries [cavities] progression is a complex process involving multiple factors, an adequate nutritional status of calcium and vitamin D could be an additional factor that may help preserve a good oral health," the researchers said.
Your bones are getting weaker.
If you're experiencing more cavities and you suspect it's due to a lack of calcium, this is also a warning sign for your bones. Nearly all of the body's calcium supply (99 percent, to be exact) is stored in the bones and teeth to support their function and structure, per the National Institutes of Health (NIH). Your bones reach their peak mass around age 30.
As you get older, your bones break down faster than they rebuild, which can increase your risk of osteoporosis over time—especially if you don't get enough calcium. And, according to the NIH, osteoporosis is known for causing fractures of the hip, vertebrae, wrist, ribs, and other bones, and affects more than 10 million adults (80 percent of whom are women). You can find calcium in foods like yogurt, fortified orange juice, cheese, milk, tofu made with calcium, canned salmon with bones, and leafy greens like kale and turnip greens.
You could have rheumatoid arthritis.
Although the connection isn't fully understood yet, there appears to be a link between gum disease and rheumatoid arthritis, an autoimmune disease in which the immune system attacks healthy cells by mistake. According to the Cleveland Clinic, experts believe that some type of injury, possibly related to bacterial infection, can trigger the onset of rheumatoid arthritis in genetically susceptible individuals.
Gum disease is often caused by an overgrowth of bacteria and hard plaque on teeth, and one specific type of bacteria can cause citrullination, a process that modifies proteins and makes them more likely to spark an immune response that affects the lining of joints.
In fact, gum disease was significantly worse in rheumatoid arthritis patients compared to controls in a 2019 study of 344 patients published in the journal Arthritis Research & Therapy. And the severity of gum disease was significantly associated with rheumatoid arthritis disease activity.