7 Things Your Teeth Say About Your Health

Be alert to these warning signs of trouble.
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Some messages coming out of your mouth bypass the vocal chords. Turns out that your teeth, gums, and surrounding tissues also have plenty to say -- about your overall health.

"Your mouth is connected to the rest of your body," says Anthony Iacopino, dean of the University of Manitoba Faculty of Dentistry and a spokesperson for the American Dental Association. "What we see in the mouth can have a significant effect on other organ systems and processes in the body. And the reverse is also true: Things that are going on systemically in the body can manifest in the mouth."

So stay attuned to the following warning messages, and have worrisome symptoms checked out by a dentist or doctor.

Dental warning #1: Flat, worn teeth plus headache

Sign of: Big-time stress

Many people are surprised to learn they're tooth-grinders. After all, they do this in their sleep, when they're not aware of it. And they underestimate the physical toll that stress can place on the body. "Crunching and grinding the teeth at night during sleep is a common sign of emotional or psychological stress," says Iacopino.

You can sometimes see the flatness on your own teeth, or feel it with the tongue. Or the jaw may ache from the clenching.

What else to look for: Headaches, which are caused by spasms in the muscles doing the grinding. Sometimes the pain can radiate from the mouth and head down to the neck and upper back, Iacopino says. Mouth guards used at night can relieve the symptoms and protect teeth.

Dental warning #2: Cracking, crumbling teeth

Sign of: Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD)

Older adults, especially, are vulnerable to teeth that appear to be cracking or crumbling away. The enamel becomes thin and almost translucent. But this erosion isn't a normal consequence of aging. In fact, it can happen at any age.

Disintegrating teeth are usually caused by acid that's coming up from the stomach and dissolving them, Iacopino says. The cause: Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD, also called acid reflux disease). GERD causes stomach acid to back up into the esophagus -- and from there, it's a short distance to the mouth for some of the damaging acid. GERD is a chronic disorder caused by damage or other changes to the natural barrier between the stomach and the esophagus.

What else to look for: Dry mouth and heartburn are related GERD symptoms. (But in an older adult in someone else's care -- in a nursing home, for example -- these complaints may go unreported.) Cracking or chipping teeth in a younger person is also a telltale sign of bulimia, the eating disorder in which the sufferer causes herself (or himself) to vomit before digesting. Same net result: Stomach acid washes up into the mouth, over time disintegrating the tooth enamel.

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.

Dental warning #6: White webbing inside cheeks

Sign of: Lichen planus

The last thing you might expect to discover while brushing your teeth is a skin disease. But it happens. Lichen planus, whose cause is unknown, is a mild disorder that tends to strike both men and women ages 30 to 70. The mucus membranes in the mouth are often a first target.

Oral lichen planus looks like a whitish, lacy pattern on the insides of the cheeks. (The name comes from the same roots as tree lichen, a lichen that has a similar webbed, bumpy appearance.) Seventy percent of lesions appear in the mouth before they strike other parts of the body, says professor Anthony Iacopino.

What else to look for: Another common area where a lichen planus rash may appear is the vagina. Lichen planus often goes away on its own, but sometimes treatment is necessary.

Dental warning #7: Crusting dentures

Sign of: Potential aspiration pneumonia

Most people don't connect dentures (false teeth) with pneumonia, other than to think they're both words that often refer to the world of the elderly. And yet the two have a potentially deadly connection. "A leading cause of death in older people is aspiration pneumonia, often from inhaling debris around the teeth and dentures," Iacopino says.

In aspiration pneumonia, foreign material is breathed into the lungs and airway, causing dangerous (even fatal) inflammation. Too often, the problem stems from people in the care of others -- those in nursing homes, for example -- who fail to clean dentures properly. Dentures need to be removed daily from the mouth, cleaned with a special brush, and stored in a cleansing solution.

What else to look for: A soft, crusty material developing around dentures. With proper cleaning, though, you don't have to worry about other red flags. "It's amazing. You can get a 100-percent reduction in what's otherwise a leading cause of death for denture wearers," Iacopino says.

Paula Spencer Scott

Paula Spencer Scott is the author of Surviving Alzheimer's: Practical Tips and Soul-Saving Wisdom for Caregivers and much of the Alzheimer's and caregiving content on Caring. See full bio

12 months, said...

I had a stroke a few years ago and have been on a seizure med since. Approx one year ago, my teeth began decaying from the inside out, breaking in 1/2 +, enamel gone and teeth brown on those broken. My gums are beginning to wear away underneath these teeth as well. I have been told this problem can cause another stroke or problems with my heart and can shoot a clot to my brain and/or heart. I read an article substantiating this almost 8 mos. ago but, unfortunately cannot locate it now. I am in dire need of an answer and will gratefully appreciate all assistance, attention and responses. Not only do I need an answer for my medical well-being and precautions, I need an answer to enable me to obtain assistance for medically necessary procedure. Again, my sincere thanks. PS (I have dental insurance through my Medicare Disability. However, the dentists in my area will not accept any insurance associated with Medicare).

12 months, said...

I had a stroke a few years ago and have been on seizure medication since. My teeth began decaying from the inside out and breaking about 1 year ago. Now my gums are a bit swollen, the broken teeth have lost all enamel & are brown. Is this a side effect of the stroke? Can this problem cause or contribute to another stroke or a clot to the brain or heart? I read an article months ago regarding this and the definite interface between the teeth and stroke. Unfortunately, I cannot locate the article. Please help me with the answer to this question. All assistance, attention and expeditious responses will be gratefully appreciated!

over 2 years, said...

I'm very impressed with all the comments that I had read and I really want any recommentation or a referral for a lowest Dendist locally to help me with my needs of my dental problems, I'm looking forward for any helpful response. Thank you

about 3 years, said...

I was brushing my teeth like never done before and i gaged from the taste from an old crown that i got nine years ago the last time i went haven been since them and unaware of what was happening i began to strees out really bad

over 3 years, said...

This is not true, I heard those who have GERD, may not have eroded teeth. They can remineralize the teeth by talking more alkaline food or rinse with baking powder after food..

over 4 years, said...

I've got a problem with my teeth but I don't know why and now I know how it is

over 4 years, said...

What about color of teeth? Yellowing!!

over 4 years, said...

all great info

over 5 years, said...

You don't mention rotted teeth!

over 5 years, said...

Thank you.

over 5 years, said...

I don't have diabetes so the dry mouth does not come from that. It is related to arthritis but it can stand alone. One does not have to have arthritis to have Sojgrens. It is miserable because I'm always chewing gum to keep my mouth moist.

over 5 years, said...

I don't see any new comments on here

over 5 years, said...

Fascinating re: dentures being a leading cause of death in denture wearers.

over 5 years, said...

Thank you for the information. Tells me alot what's going on with my teeth. I have acid reflax and my teeth are pretty thin.

over 5 years, said...

Valuable education must have the desired positive impact. The great tragedy is the misinformed advice on something as basic as effective tooth-brushing -- it must imitate the chewing motion if it can compensate for the lack of heavy chewing work no longer required by modern diet.

over 5 years, said...

I knew this stuff (I do a great deal of editing of professional dentistry articles), but I have a dear friend whose teeth are crumbling and who refuses to accept the idea that this is anything bad. I plan to give him a printout of this column; maybe if he sees it in a publication such as yours, he will believe he needs to do some things other than get new dentures!

over 5 years, said...

Dry mouth caused by Sjogrens can also cause tooth decay. I know by experience. My teeth decay fast because I don't have enough saliva. I see the dentist about every 3 months to make sure I don't have any new cavities. It is an autoimmune syndrome.

almost 6 years, said...

I agree. Due to the acid secreted by our body, the enamel destroys. So it's better to take care of your teeth.

over 6 years, said...

not what I was looking for..

over 6 years, said...

interesting article to note-helps in achieving healthy body

over 6 years, said...

also, for my stomach i started drinking 32 oz. or more of hot caffeine free teas or lemon water about 3 to 4 times a week any time of the day for me about 2 weeks has cleaned my stomach nicely; and therefore helped with dry mouth and body and mouth smells as well. Also, I brush my teeth with lukewarm water and gargle before, or after and during regular toothpaste brushing has helped very well also. I guess lukewarm water is more powerful than we give it recognition.

over 6 years, said...

Yes very helpfull for me I do have Gerd and I 75 year old God Bless you all Thank

over 6 years, said...

I am still fairly young, but have some dental problems. This article gave me some things to ask my doctor and dentist about.

over 6 years, said...

Yet another very helpful article. Thank you.

over 6 years, said...

the signs, warnings and everything in the article is very informative, thanks a

over 6 years, said...

dry mouth and medication problem sings off diabetes

over 6 years, said...

every thing

over 6 years, said...

really it is a very informative article. the mouth is the indication of the personalities of the person concerned. now a days the awakening of the oral hygiene increased. we want more knowledge about oral and mouth 's diseases preventions and cures.

over 6 years, said...

Dunno about thisn article. They say 'mucus membrane' when 'mucous' it should be. Then there is the statement, " Smokers are six times more likely to develop oral cancer, but one in four oral cancers develop in non-smokers. >> Oh dear. If smokers are 6 times as likely to get cancer than non-smokers, then out of 100 cancer victims only 14 will on average be non-smokers. Yet in the same breath the article says, "one in 4 is a non-smoker'. Think I'll just continue smoking my stogies & not worry about it ....

over 6 years, said...

Howdy, What do you do if you CAN'T AFFORD even an exam?? The last time I went for a 'small' filling it cost $100 and FELL OUT the next day!! I'm on SS of $700 a month. We live in a small town with 2 dentists who charge $150 UP FRONT just to examine you; everything else is EXTRA!!! All of my fillings have fallen out, even one crown and now my teeth are breaking off.. I'm 76 years old..