Even if your teeth look white and pearly and have no cavities, symptoms in your mouth could spell trouble for other areas of your health.
“If your eyes are a window into your soul, your mouth is a gateway into your health,” says Sanda Moldovan, a periodontist in Beverly Hills, Calif. “The way I treat patients who come to me, I connect the mouth with the rest of the body because I do believe we’re a unit, and we’re no longer separating the two.”
What’s going on below can directly affect the teeth, the gums and the mouth, so never ignore an oral problem. Here are some things your mouth can reveal about your health:
Bleeding gums can be a symptom of hormonal imbalance: Hormone receptors are embedded in your gum tissue. During pregnancy, women may experience bleeding gums, not because of a problem with a tooth but because their hormones have gone a little haywire. Ditto for menopause. Women also have more sensitive gums during their menstrual cycles.
Red mouth, fat tongue can be a symptom of nutritional deficiency: If the corners of someone’s mouth are red, that can be a sign of a B-6 vitamin deficiency. Also, a swollen tongue, a shiny, red tongue or beefy tongue can be signs of iron deficiency. Similarly, a pale tongue can indicate anemia. Bring any color questions to the attention of your dentist.
Cracked, crumbling teeth can be a symptom of reflux: A lot of times people think their teeth are wearing down because they grind them. But when dentists observe teeth that melt away and have a lot of cracks, it’s often from stomach acid emitted during sleep. Gastroesphogeal reflux disease, or GERD, occurs when stomach acids come up through the esophagus into the mouth.
“The hard structures of teeth are being bathed in acid and low pH and that is actually eroding the enamel off the teeth,” says Dr. Jeanette Kern, who practices general dentistry in Monterey, Calif.
Kern refers patients to a gastroenterologist at the first sign of GERD tooth symptoms.
Bad breath can be a symptom of stomach issues: If you’re brushing and flossing regularly and have good dental checkups, bad breath can be related to stomach issues.
“A small bacterial overgrowth in a patient’s stomach can show up as bad breath and not be associated at all with teeth,” Moldovan says.
It may be an indication of a liver or kidney problem. When diabetics have breath that smells musty like fermentation, that means their diabetes is not under control and they should see a physician right away. Get any bad breath not related to oral health checked out.
Flat, worn teeth and headaches can be a symptom of stress: Flat worn teeth or morning headaches spell teeth grinding. If you sleep solo, bruxism can go unnoticed until your dentist takes a peek into your mouth. Morning headaches and jaw pain are other telltale signs.
“Worn teeth are just the beginning. Grinding affects the entire masticatory apparatus, from the bones that surround the teeth to the muscles that move the jaw,” said Dr. Bryon Viechnicki, an orthodontist in Bethlehem, Pa., and clinical adjunct associate professor of orthodontics at Temple University.
Teeth can develop stress fractures, and grinders can have muscle pain and headaches that feel sinus-related.
“In many men, bruxism is a real pain in the neck — the cervical muscles can be affected,” Viechnicki said.
Migraines associated with bruxism are more common in women. The scariest part of heavy bruxism for many patients is not being able to open their mouths all the way. To protect your teeth, jaws and muscles, a custom mouth guard can be made by your dentist. Managing stress and anxiety can also help relieve symptoms.
Canker sores can be a symptom of gluten intolerance or mineral deficiency: “Normally if I see someone with canker sores, I will give them a zinc supplement, and if they still have them, I would send them to the gastro doc to check out their gluten intolerance, for possible celiac disease,” Moldovan says.
Celiac disease is an inherited, immune system disorder in which the proteins found in wheat, rye and barley cause damage to the lining of the small intestine. A recent study suggests a link between the mouth sores and intolerance for gluten. Study participants who ate a gluten-free diet healed their canker sores. Ask your doctor or dentist about a link if you have repeat canker sores.
Gum disease and inflammation can be a symptom of heart problems:“We know that the type of the bacteria in the mouth can be transferred down into our blood vessels and cause plaque, and that plaque has a type of bacteria that lives in the mouth,” Kern says. “So bacteria circulate in our entire body.”
Even if you only have mild gum inflammation around one tooth, it’s in your bloodstream, so your body is working on it all the time.
“I think it’s a combination that it is wearing down your immune system, and that type of bacteria in the plumbing of the blood vessel can cause coronary problems,” Kern says.
Having gum disease taken care of with a deep cleaning in the dentist office lowers inflammation and helps the entire body.
“So you may think you are cleaning up your mouth, but you’re possibly saving your life when you take care of your periodontal disease,” Kern said.