Diabetes affects people all over the world. Early detection can allow you to get treatment sooner and potentially avoid further complications. If you have diabetes, it's also important to know how this increases your risk of developing certain oral health conditions, and how you can lower these risks.  

Everyone needs to take good care of their teeth and gums to avoid common oral health problems. However, preventative dental care can be especially important if you have diabetes, as you have a higher risk of developing problems such as gum disease, tooth decay and other oral infections. Keep reading to find out more about how diabetes can impact your oral health. 

Which oral health problems commonly affect people with diabetes?

Most Australians experience tooth decay or other preventable dental health problems at some point in their lives. However, the estimated 1.7 million people in Australia who have diabetes are particularly at risk, as blood glucose levels that aren’t managed well can lower the body's resistance to infection and affects its ability to heal.

If you have diabetes, you’re often at a higher risk of conditions such as:

  • periodontal (gum) disease
  • tooth decay
  • oral infections
  • dry or burning mouth

Diabetes and gum disease

Periodontal (gum) disease is caused by the same bacteria responsible for tooth decay. This bacteria produces plaque which, when hardened to form calculus or tartar, causes the gums to swell, redden and bleed. If gum disease is left untreated, it can start to destroy the bone around your teeth that holds them in place. This might even lead to tooth loss.

Although you have a higher risk of gum disease if you have diabetes, you can manage this risk by managing your blood glucose levels and keeping them within the optimal range you’ve agreed upon with your doctor or diabetes educator. If you notice any symptoms of gum disease, it's important that you make an appointment with your dentist for gum disease treatment as soon as possible.

Diabetes and tooth decay

Tooth decay is also caused by bacteria in plaque. The bacteria feed on sugar and starch in the food and drink you eat and produce acids that wear down the enamel surface of teeth, causing cavities and other damage. Acidic items such as soft drink can also damage the enamel. Because many people with diabetes have a higher level of glucose in their saliva, and also experience dry mouth due to less saliva being produced, this sometimes creates the ideal environment for plaque to thrive.

You can remove most of the dental plaque in your mouth when you brush your teeth at least twice a day using a fluoride toothpaste, and floss between your teeth once daily. However, this isn't always enough to remove all the plaque that may be present – you should also visit your dentist periodically to have your teeth checked and professionally cleaned. With your individual circumstances in mind, your dentist can advise you on the right frequency of dental visits.

Diabetes and oral infections

High levels of glucose in the saliva and low saliva levels also make the mouth more vulnerable to a range of infections, particularly oral thrush (a fungal infection). Keeping your blood glucose levels in your optimal range will help in the treatment of this condition, in combination with antifungal medication and other treatments prescribed by your dentist.

Help improve your oral health

Diabetes and oral health problems both impact on your general health, and both need to be effectively managed.

If you are already taking steps to keep your blood glucose levels in an optimal range, you can lower your oral health risks by practising good oral hygiene by:

  • brushing your teeth at least twice a day
  • flossing at least once a day
  • using a fluoride mouthwash
  • avoiding overly sugary and acidic food and drinks
  • drinking plenty of water
  • visiting your dentist regularly (e.g. twice a year)

Quitting smoking is also important for preventing dry mouth and reducing your risk of gum disease, as well as improving your health generally.

If you suspect your dry mouth symptoms may be caused by any of your medications, talk to your dentist, pharmacist or doctor to find out if there are other options available.

Don't forget: see your dentist

Has it been longer than six months since you last visited the dentist? Regular oral examinations are important to allow your dentist to spot problems at an early stage when they can be easier to fix, especially if you're in a high-risk group.

When you see your dentist, be sure to mention your medical history so he or she can provide a treatment plan that's as closely tailored to your needs as possible.

Want to read more?

Oral hygiene tips

Keeping your gums healthy