Dr. Vaibhavi S. Patel

Gum disease, also known as periodontitis, has been shown to put sufferers at greater risk of other medical conditions, including heart disease, stroke, cancer, and low birth weight. The idea that good oral care can help you lead a healthier and longer life should be impetus enough to keep you brushing and flossing every day.

However, your risk of developing gum disease greatly increases with some health problems, not the least of which is diabetes. And if periodontitis goes unchecked, it can lead to additional problems for diabetics trying to manage the disease. Here are the facts about gum disease and diabetes that you need to know:

Increased Risk

Anyone who doesn’t follow a good oral hygiene regimen can find themselves suffering from gum disease, so why are diabetics especially susceptible to periodontitis? Diabetes hampers the body’s ability to control blood sugar, or glucose, levels. Elevated blood sugar, in turn, results in more susceptibility to infections—and gum disease is essentially an infection in which bacteria have inflamed a person’s mouth. Moreover, the blood vessels of diabetics may thicken, thus reducing crucial oxygen flow throughout the body. In the gums, this reduced oxygen delivery can reduce overall oral health and make them even more susceptible to periodontitis.

How Diabetes Makes Gum Disease Worse

Reduced oxygen flow—which gives the body less ammo to fight existing infections—is just one of the ways diabetes and gum disease conspire to decrease oral and overall health. Some diabetes medications can result in dry mouth; less saliva breeds more bacteria which exacerbate periodontitis. If gum disease becomes severe enough, tooth loss may occur, which can throw off the patient’s diet and, subsequently, influence glucose levels. Perhaps the biggest catch-22 is that gum disease can increase blood sugar, and increased blood sugar can make gum disease even more acute. This vicious cycle not only decreases the health of the diabetic’s mouth, but also worsens the diabetes. And with diabetics having enough to worry about trying to control the disease, the state of their teeth and gums can easily take a back seat.

How Smoking Compounds the Problem

Diabetes and gum disease sound like a bad combination, but another factor complicates the condition even more: smoking. Tobacco (yes, we’re including chewing tobacco in this discussion) is already hell to a person’s oral health, but for diabetics, it’s a lose-lose situation. Smoking and diabetes exponentially increase the likelihood of developing severe gum disease—and because years of tobacco use have already diminished oral health, that severe gum disease can be, well, quite severe. Quitting smoking (and chewing) is recommended for people trying to manage their diabetes; think of better oral health as an added (and imperative) benefit.

Avoiding and Managing Gum Disease

The most obvious strategy for avoiding gum disease is simply good oral hygiene: brushing twice a day (for a minimum of two minutes each time), flossing daily, eating well, seeing your dentist twice a year, and not smoking. However, for diabetics, you can do all of those things and still find yourself with gum disease symptoms. The best advice for minimizing periodontitis is to keep your diabetes under control. Stable glucose levels lead to a healthier body, which in turn will positively affect your gums. Moreover, a diabetic-healthy diet often is a mouth-healthy diet—avoiding sugary foods will inevitably help your teeth.

Finally, work with your doctor and your dentist to better manage any gum problems that arise. If you notice a serious issue with your gums, make appointments with both to determine a course of action. An inflamed gum might be the result of a new medication … or it may just be from using the wrong toothpaste. Managing gum disease and diabetes requires knowing all the facts; this is your health, so don’t leave anything to chance.