Not many people look forward to a trip to their dentist – but as well as spotting tooth decay and gum disease, it could actually save your life.
“What most people don’t know is your dentist can be your first line of defence in spotting symptoms of wider health problems in the rest of the body,” says Neil Sikka, chief dental officer at Bupa Dental Care.
So what are the red flags you should always be on the lookout for?
Blueish lips could signal POOR CIRCULATION
Lips with a blueish tinge to them can signify more than just that you are feeling cold. “Any unusual appearance of blueish lips could indicate many things, for example, poor circulation or anaemia,” says Neil.
“I would always encourage a patient with very pale lips, lining of the mouth or tongue to visit their doctor and get a blood test and a heart check.”
Gum disease could signal DIABETES
“It’s well documented that people with diabetes are at a higher risk of developing gum disease,” says Neil. “Now, research is starting to show that the link works both ways.
“Gum disease and infection can lead to an increase in your blood sugar levels and influence your risk of developing diabetes.
“Dentists aren’t just looking for issues they can physically see, they are trained to identify odour coming from the teeth and gums – for example the smell of pear drops is often indicative of uncontrolled diabetes.”
Worn down teeth could be STRESS
Severe stress can cause us to grind or clench our teeth and over time this can cause serious damage. “It can lead to problems with your jaw joint and bite,” says Susie Lloyd, dentist at Holt Dental Care in Norfolk.
“Damaged or worn-down teeth, sensitive teeth, broken teeth and broken fillings are all symptoms of teeth grinding or clenching, which can be caused by stress or anxiety.
Your dentist might recommend a mouthguard to prevent sleep-related teeth grinding or urge you to see your GP for help managing stress.”
Excess plaque could signal A LUNG CONDITION
Bupa’s Neil says: “If your mouth contains a lot of bacterial plaque, medics believe the bacteria could potentially spread to the lungs, causing infection or aggravate existing conditions such as emphysema and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.
So if a patient has poor oral health and there is evidence suggesting it has potentially triggered lung issues such as a persistent cough or chronic mucus production, we advise them to see a doctor.”
Worn enamel could signal BULIMIA
Dentists can often tell if a patient is bulimic by the way the enamel of their teeth has worn down.
“A distinct pattern of tooth wear can be due to repeated episodes of vomiting, indicating someone with bulimia, which can contribute to increased cavities,” says Neil.
“This is because vomit contains stomach acids, which are corrosive and strong enough to wear away the enamel that protects your teeth. In sensitive cases like these, where we feel like someone has an eating disorder, we would ask if we can refer them for help.”
A mouth ulcer that doesn’t heal could signal CANCER
Mouth ulcers can be caused by many things, including poorly fitting dentures, erupting wisdom teeth, infections, medication, dietary deficiencies or damage caused while brushing and they are very common.
But if you have a mouth ulcer that isn’t healing, seek help. “Ulceration that hasn’t healed after two weeks could be a sign of something more serious,” says dentist Susie.
“It could signify mouth cancer so it’s important to speak to your dentist who can refer you to a specialist for further tests.”
White patches on the tongue could signal THRUSH
“If you find that you have white patches or spots on the tongue it can indicate a fungal infection, such as oral thrush,” says Neil Sikka.
It’s usually harmless and can be easily treated with mouth gel from the pharmacy.
However if you see a hard, flat, white area that can’t be scraped away it could be leukoplakia, which is linked to cancer.
“It’s important to let your dentist know about any white patches you see on your tongue which haven’t gone away after a fortnight.”
Croaky voice could signal NERVE DAMAGE
Surprisingly it’s not just your teeth and gums your dentist is checking to ensure you’re in good health.
“Even something like a patient with a croaky voice would concern me as it could be a sign of nerve damage or even oral cancer,” says Neil Sikka.
“As part of any routine oral cancer screening, which I perform during every check-up, I always check a patient’s lips, tongue, cheek, the floor of their mouth, hard and soft palate, and throat.
“If a patient had a persistent croaky voice that had lasted longer than two weeks it shouldn’t be ignored.”
Dry mouth could signal MENOPAUSE
“Many women may not be aware their oral health can be affected during menopause,” says Faizan Zaheer, periodontist and implant dentist.
“Falling oestrogen levels cause the body to reduce saliva production, leading to a dry mouth.
“When your mouth is dry, bacteria can grow and levels can lead to tooth decay and gum disease.
“Menopause can also lead to a weakness in the jawbone as well as, in rare cases, burning mouth syndrome where you feel pain or a burning sensation on the tongue, gums, lips, inside of the cheeks or at the back of the mouth and throat.”