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What Your Mouth Says About Your Health

What Your Mouth Says About Your Health

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Your mouth provides clues to eating disorders, osteoporosis and more conditions.

En español | When you open your mouth and say "ahhhh," the dentist can tell a lot about your health, and not just whether you've been flossing or have a cavity. Your gums, teeth, mouth, tongue, breath and throat all provide significant clues to your general health.

New research by Johns Hopkins University finds fewer than half of adults age 65-plus have visited a dentist in the previous year, but regular check-ups are important for maintaining more than just dental health. Here are seven surprising conditions your dentist may detect.

Erectile dysfunction. If you're a man with serious gum disease, your dentist may tell you that it could also affect your sex life. A new review of five studies that covered 213,000 patients ages 20 to 80, published in the International Journal of Impotence Research, found that erectile dysfunction (ED) was over twice as common in men with periodontitis — a chronic bacterial infection of the gums — than in men without it. Gum disease, because of the inflammation it causes, has also been tied to a greater risk of heart disease. The good news is that a study published in 2013 found that treating gum disease appeared to lessen the symptoms of ED after three months.

Acid reflux. You may think it's just a little indigestion, but your dentist could be the first to tell that you are suffering from a more serious condition called gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) and need to get it checked out. When stomach acid leaks into the esophagus and sometimes into the mouth, it can permanently erode the enamel on the back teeth as well as cause bad breath and an inflamed throat, says Noreen Myers-Wright of the Mailman School of Public Health at Columbia University. GERD not only can make teeth more susceptible to decay, it may even lead to esophageal cancer.

Diabetes. If you have bad breath, bleeding or inflamed gums, dry mouth, sores and loose teeth, it could be signs of diabetes, especially if you have these symptoms despite taking good care of your mouth. Your dentist may recommend that you get a blood test to check for diabetes. Diabetes makes you more susceptible to gum disease, which in turn makes it more difficult to control blood sugar levels, says dentist Brian Nový of the DentaQuest Institute, a Massachusetts-based, national nonprofit that promotes improved dental care practices. If your breath smells fruity or like acetone (the stuff in nail polish removers), it can indicate a serious complication of diabetes called ketoacidosis, in which blood sugars have become dangerously high.

Oral cancer. As part of your regular dental checkup, your dentist should be examining your face, neck, lips, mouth, tongue, throat, salivary glands and lymph nodes for any abnormalities that might indicate cancer, according to the American Dental Association (ADA). Checking for changes in the smoothness and color of the inside of the throat could help find human papillomavirus (HPV)-associated oropharyngeal cancer early, Nový adds. Government data shows these HPV-associated cancers are on the rise, especially among men. Sally Cram, an ADA spokesperson and a Washington, D.C., periodontist, adds that patients shouldn't ignore swelling or red spots on the tongue that don't go away in two weeks. "If you smoke, chew tobacco or have more than two alcoholic drinks a day, you may be at increased risk for oral cancer," she says. You should also let your dentist know about any problems you have swallowing, chewing or moving your jaw, which could be tied to cancer.

Chewing ice and other bad habits. Crunching on the ice in your cup is a big dental no-no, and your dentist can tell that you have this bad habit (and others) by the little fractures and cracks in your teeth, Cram says. Ditto for chewing on hard popcorn kernels or the pits of fruit such as peaches, plums and apricots, or using your teeth as a tool to twist open bottle caps or tear open plastic bags, all of which puts too much pressure on the thin edges of your chompers and can lead to breakage. If you do any of these things, knock it off.

Eating disorders. Those with bulimia or anorexia may try to hide their disorder, but a dentist can spot it because frequent vomiting can cause stomach acid to erode the inside enamel of the upper front teeth, Myers-Wright says. Your dentist also can tell if you're not following a healthy diet. Poor nutrition can show up as dry mouth and bleeding gums.

Osteoporosis. Our bones become less dense and more likely to fracture as we grow older. Dental X-rays can show signs of bone loss in the jawbone and the bony area that supports the teeth. Tooth loss is also a symptom: Women with osteoporosis are three times more likely to have tooth loss than those who do not have the disease, according to the National Institutes of Health. Bisphosphonates, a type of drug used to treat osteoporosis, have been associated with a very rare but serious condition that can cause damage to the jawbone, which also can be detected in dental X-rays.