You’re used to your mouth doing the talking, but you may not be tuning in to some of its most important messages about your health.
As long as your smile is pearly white and your breath smells good (go ahead and check), you probably don’t give too much thought to your oral hygiene. Which is a shame because even if you brush and floss daily, you could be overlooking some clear signs of the state of your overall health.
There is an association between oral problems and serious health conditions in the rest of your body. So next time you pick up your toothbrush, stop and check your kisser for these clues that something may be amiss so you can remedy the issue.
WARNING SIGN: SHARP TOOTH PAIN
A slight discomfort in your mouth is likely a piece of popcorn or nut lodged between teeth—something you can easily self-treat. But a sudden, sharp pain in your teeth when you bite down or chew is reason to see your dentist immediately, as it could indicate dental decay or a cavity.
However, an ache that’s located in your top teeth may signal a sinus infection, as the sinuses are located just above the upper roots of your upper teeth. A dentist should be able to tell if your sinuses are clogged with an x-ray, and a decongestant should help the pain subside.
WARNING SIGN: BLEEDING GUMS
Seeing red while brushing or flossing could mean you need to step up your home care or that you have periodontal (gum) disease.
Make a trip to your dentist as soon as possible for a thorough cleaning, and be sure to brush your teeth twice a day and floss once a day, as gum disease can be extremely dangerous to the rest of the body. The harmful bacteria that’s causing your gums to bleed can leave the mouth and enter the bloodstream, potentially affecting your heart by inflaming your arteries.
Some studies have also found a possible link between gum disease and premature pregnancy and low birth weights. Pregnant women should pay close attention to oral hygiene, ramp up their brushing and flossing regimen, limit sugar intake, and avoid major dental procedures that could in any way influence the baby’s growth and development.
WARNING SIGN: PERMANENTLY STAINED TEETH
But for darker stains that won’t go away, it may be time to see a professional. Dark black or brown spots on a tooth can signal a cavity, while red or blue hues that appear suddenly could mean the tooth has cracked to the pulp, where the nerves and blood vessels are located.
If you have white, yellow, or brown spots and grooves or pitting on the tooth’s surface, you could have celiac disease.
Lastly, some stains may have occurred during childhood as a result of tetracycline antibiotics, and unfortunately bleach cannot make these go away.
WARNING SIGN: CRACKING OR LOOSE TEETH
Cracking, crumbling, or suddenly crooked teeth can indicate that you may need to check on your mental—rather than physical—wellness. These problems are usually a sign of tooth grinding, which is caused by stress. Stress triggers muscle tension in your jaw, causing you to clench it closed at night. This can lead to headaches, difficulty closing your mouth, or permanent damage to your jaw joint.
Relieving stress is much easier said than done, but try to relax before going to bed by doing whatever will take your worries off your mind. Your dentist can also give you a bite guard to wear at night to keep your teeth apart, protecting them from wear and tear, Cram says. Other options for alleviating the symptoms of grinding include muscle relaxation techniques, physical therapy, and applying heat to the facial muscles. However since these may only relieve tension and not stop the grinding, you often still need a bite guard. Talk to your dentist to discuss your choices.
WARNING SIGN: MOUTH SORES
It’s key to know what kind of sore you’re dealing with: Crater-like sores that appear inside or outside the mouth are canker sores and ulcers. Stress, hormones, allergies, or a nutritional deficiency of iron, folic acid, or vitamin B-12 may be to blame, and eating certain acidic or spicy foods can exacerbate sores. To alleviate them, an OTC topical cream or gel should work.
If you have fluid-filled sores on your lips, those are cold sores, which are caused by the herpes simplex virus. They will crust over during healing, which can take up to three weeks, so avoid touching them (or locking lips) while they drain or “weep,” as they are contagious.
Any kind of sore that doesn’t start to heal or disappear after about two weeks, and especially one that turns red, white, or swollen, requires an immediate trip to the dentist. “This could signal an autoimmune disease or even something more serious.
WARNING SIGN: METALLIC TASTE
Or you may have zinc deficiency – vegetarians and vegans are more prone to this, as the mineral is found mostly in animal products. If you’re an omnivore, be sure you’re getting plenty of zinc in your diet—good sources include oysters, beef, crab, fortified cereal, and pork chops. Vegetarians can get their share from fortified cereal, legumes, wheat germ, pumpkin seeds, and milk products, or by taking a vitamin supplement, but always talk to your doctor before choosing a supplement or drastically changing your diet.
WARNING SIGNS: CUTS ON THE INNER CORNERS OF YOUR LIPS
These cracked areas actually have a name—angular cheilitis—and they’re not just a side effect of chapped, dry lips. These cuts are inflamed areas of fungal or bacterial infection, and may be caused by nutritional deficiencies. Other triggers can include recent mouth trauma, chapped lips, a lip-licking habit, or excess saliva.
If you see cuts on both sides of your lips, it’s likely angular cheilitis and not just a cold sore or irritated skin. Topical anti-fungal medications can provide relief, but also talk to you doctor to see if you are lacking B vitamins or iron, and to determine how to adjust your diet if necessary.
WARNING SIGN: WHITISH BUMPS ON YOUR TONGUE
A white coat on your tongue is reason to see a white coat. While it may be the result of poor hygiene, dry mouth, or a medication, it may also be thrush. This overgrowth of bacteria is more likely to occur in babies and in people who wear dentures, but it can be painful, so you’ll need to get it taken care of ASAP.
While a bluish color on your tongue may just be a blood clot where you bit yourself, it could signify a more serious condition such as oral cancer. Don’t panic, but if you these colored areas suddenly appear on your tongue, make an appointment to see your dentist, stat.
WARNING SIGN: WHITE WEBBING ON YOUR INNER CHEEK
White strand- or web-like patterns inside your cheek usually mean you have lichen planus, a condition that can also cause shiny red bumps on other areas of your skin such as your hands, nails, or scalp. More common in women ages 30 to 70, the cause of lichen planus is unknown and while it isn’t contagious or dangerous, there’s no known cure for it either. It’s more of an annoyance, but it’s still something to air to your dentist.
WARNING SIGN: DRY MOUTH
Dry mouth is a side effect of many medications, including antihistamines, antidepressants, and anti-anxiety meds. So when you talk to your dentist, speak up if you’re taking any of these.
Of course if medication is the problem, you still have to address the issue since moisture in your mouth helps prevent cavities, tooth decay, gingivitis, and other oral infections. Try products that contain xylitol, such as sugar-free gum or Salese lozenges, which helps stimulate the production of saliva.
But if you also suffer from cracked lips and swollen, sore, or bleeding gums, you may have Sjogren’s syndrome, an autoimmune disease that can be treated with medication or surgery. Bottom line: See your dentist.
WARNING SIGN: BAD BREATH
That’s not garlic from lunch causing your dragon breath, it’s a buildup of bacteria—and a sign you need to be more mindful with your toothbrush. Brush and floss thoroughly using light—not aggressive—pressure, and use a tongue scraper to clean the back of the tongue. Merely rubbing your tongue with your toothbrush won’t be enough to combat bacteria that are responsible for halitosis.
If this doesn’t work, something more may be at play, such as a respiratory disease, post-nasal drip, uncontrolled diabetes, gastric reflux, or kidney failure. Or if your breath is fruity, it could be a sign of diabetes. When the body doesn’t have enough insulin, it cannot use sugar as energy, so it uses fat for energy instead. Ketones, byproducts of fat breakdown, can cause this fruity odor. Check with your dental professional if you’ve been experiencing smellier-than-usual breath for more than a week, and he’ll be able to refer you to another professional if further investigation is needed.