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What Your Mouth Can Tell You About Your Health

If you think skipping out on routine teeth cleaning is no big deal, think again. Research has shown a direct link between oral health and total health. Oral issues can develop and progress quickly, whether or not you notice them.

Dental professionals are not only concerned with fixing teeth, but also clean them, aim to ensure your gums are healthy, and check for abnormalities that may otherwise go unnoticed and could be a sign of larger health issues. By keeping on top of your dental cleanings and checkups, you’re doing yourself a big favor in the long run.

Dr. John Palm, Dentist and Medical Director at Keystone Dental Care, shares some information about what your oral health may be telling you about your overall health, and how to treat one of the more common symptoms – dry mouth.

Oral Cancer

If you don’t know the signs of oral cancer and don’t seek treatment, it can quickly progress and become life-threatening. If you have any of the following symptoms, you should seek medical attention.

White or red discoloration in the mouth – if you notice any change of color inside the mouth, including the gums, it could be a sign of oral cancer caused by the human papillomavirus (HPV). This is especially prevalent in older males.

Sores, lumps, swelling, or thick patches – these symptoms can be found anywhere in the mouth or throat. Accompanying issues include trouble moving your jaw or tongue, difficulty swallowing, chewing or speaking, a sore throat that doesn’t heal and discomfort wearing dentures due to swelling.


One in three people with diabetes don’t even know they have it. This is very dangerous, because untreated diabetes can threaten your heart, eyes, kidneys, mouth and more. Oral symptoms could be among the first signs that you need to see a doctor and be screened for diabetes. These symptoms include:

Bad/fruity-smelling breath – people with diabetes may develop a sweet and fruity odor on their breath as their body is struggling to get rid of excess chemicals.

Sore gums or teeth – if your gums are sore, swollen or bleeding it could be a sign of gum disease, which is common in diabetic patients. If your mouth is slow to heal after a burn or a cut, it could also be an indicator of diabetes.

Dry mouth – this is marked by excessive thirst, and can cause soreness, ulcers, infections and tooth decay. Smoking makes this problem even worse. It’s important to see a dentist regularly, because a dentist’s trained eye can spot dryness in the mouth before symptoms even begin.

How To Treat Dry Mouth Symptoms

While dry mouth can be a sign of disease, it can also be caused by things such as stress, some medications, and cancer treatments. If you’re suffering from this condition, there are things you can do to alleviate the symptoms.

Sipping small amounts of water during the day will help keep your mouth moist. However, drinking too much water will reduce the mucus film in your mouth and can make problems worse. Avoid drinking many acidic beverages (carbonated drinks, wine, and fruit juices) and stick with water, especially while eating. Chewing sugar-free gum or sucking on sugar-free hard candies may also help; if you get gum or candies sweetened by xylitol, it may even help prevent tooth decay.

Oil-based lip balms or ointments with Vitamin E will soothe dry lips, and using humidifiers in your home (especially at night) can provide relief. There are also over-the-counter saliva moisturizers available. If you are still experiencing dry mouth after trying the above treatments, you can discuss prescription medications with your dentist or healthcare provider.

Autoimmune Diseases

The immune system is designed to protect our bodies from disease. However, in those suffering from autoimmune diseases, the immune system attacks healthy cells in the body by mistake. Some autoimmune disorders include: inflammatory bowel diseases (such as Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis), rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, and Sjögren’s syndrome. Any of the following symptoms could be a sign that something isn’t right within your body.

Bumps or ulcers in the mouth – raised bumps that look like cobblestones on the gums may or may not be painful, but they could signal inflammation related to an autoimmune disease. Small, painful ulcers in the mouth (also known as canker sores) can be another indicator of larger health problems.

Difficulty swallowing, change in speech and/or taste, and mouth dryness – Autoimmune diseases can affect the glands that produce saliva. If enough saliva isn’t being produced or if it has a thick consistency, you may want to see a doctor.

Jaw swelling and/or pain – this can be a sign of inflammatory arthritis in the TMJ (temporomandibular joint), which affects about 50% of people with rheumatoid arthritis.

Changes in the tongue or lower lip – if you notice your tongue or lower lip is swollen or enlarged, or that your tongue has taken on a dry, cobblestone appearance, your body could be telling you there is a bigger problem.


People with anemia have a lower red blood cell count than normal, and their bodies may not get enough oxygen-rich blood supply. If you know you have anemia, be sure to tell your dentist before they begin any procedures as this can affect care.

Sore, smooth, and/or swollen tongue – these signs may be accompanied by the tongue appearing more pale than normal.

Paleness of the gums, tongue, or mouth – if the tissue in your mouth is abnormally pale it could be a sign that your body isn’t producing enough red blood cells.

Acid Reflux or Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease (GERD)

When many people think of acid reflux or GERD, they think of heartburn. However, untreated GERD can lead to serious health issues, including cancer. It can also lead to oral health problems.

Tooth erosion – the gastric acid found in those with chronic reflux often leads to tooth erosion – even without heartburn or other obvious symptoms. If your dentist notices your tooth enamel is weakening or eroding, it could be a sign of something more.

Chronic Kidney Disease

This disease affects your body’s ability to properly filter waste and toxins, and can lead to gradual and permanent loss of kidney functions over time. If left untreated, it can be fatal. People with diabetes and high blood pressure are especially at risk of developing chronic kidney disease.

Bad breath – As your kidneys lose their ability to filter wastes from your body, your breath will take on the scent of urine. If you notice a scent that smells like fish or ammonia on your breath, it might be time to see a doctor.


This article contains general information only and should not be used as a substitute for professional diagnosis, treatment or care by a qualified health care provider.