More things your teeth say about your health
Dental warning #3: Sores that won't go away
Sign of: Oral cancer
Many people bite the insides of their mouth as a nervous habit. Others sometimes bite the gum accidentally, creating a sore. But when an open sore in the mouth doesn't go away within a week or two, it always warrants showing to a dentist or doctor. "We all injure our oral tissues, but if an area persists in being white or red rather than the normal healthy pink, this needs to be evaluated to rule out oral cancer," says Susan Hyde, an associate professor of clinical dentistry at the University of California, San Francisco, School of Dentistry.
More than 21,000 men and 9,000 women a year are diagnosed with oral cancer, according to the National Cancer Institute. Most are over age 60. Oral cancer has a survival rate of only 35 percent, Iacopino says, but this is mainly because cases are often detected too late. Smokers are six times more likely to develop oral cancer, but one in four oral cancers develop in non-smokers.
What else to look for: Suspicious oral ulcers tend to be raised sores and often have red or white (or red and white) borders. They may lurk underneath the tongue, where they're hard to see. Bleeding and numbness are other signs, but sometimes the only sign is a sore that doesn't seem to go away. A biopsy usually follows a visual check.
Dental warning #4: Gums growing over teeth
Sign of: Medication problems
If you notice your gum literally growing over your tooth, and you're taking a medication for heart disease or seizures or you take drugs to suppress your immune system (such as before a transplant), it's well worth mentioning this curious development to your prescribing doctor.
"A swelling of the gums to where it grows over the teeth is a sign the dosage or the medication need to be adjusted," the ADA's Anthony Iacopino says. Certain drugs can stimulate the growth of gum tissue. This can make it hard to brush and floss, inviting tooth decay and periodontal disease.
What else to look for: The overgrowth can cause an uncomfortable sensation. In extreme cases, the entire tooth can be covered.
Dental warning #5: Dry mouth
Sign of: Sjogren's syndrome, diabetes
Many things can cause dry mouth, from dehydration and allergies to smoking and new medications. (In fact, hundreds of drugs list dry mouth as a side effect, including those to treat depression and incontinence, muscle relaxants, antianxiety agents, and antihistamines.) But a lack of sufficient saliva is also an early warning of two autoimmune diseases unrelated to medicine use: Sjogren's syndrome and diabetes.
In Sjogren's, the white blood cells of the body attack their moisture-producing glands, for unknown reasons. Four million Americans have Sjogren's, 90 percent of them women. Twenty-four million people in the U.S. have type 1 or type 2 diabetes, a metabolic disease caused by high blood sugar.
What else to look for: Other signs of diabetes include excessive thirst, tingling in the hands and feet, frequent urination, blurred vision, and weight loss. In Sjogren's, the eyes are dry as well as the mouth, but the entire body is affected by the disorder. Because its symptoms mimic other diseases (such as diabetes), people are often misdiagnosed and go several years before being properly diagnosed.