by Rosemary Black

Diabetes can put you at greater risk of tooth decay, gingivitis and periodontitis. Here’s how to help keep your smile healthy and bright.

Taking charge of your diabetes means being vigilant about the health of every part of your body—and that includes your mouth.

Elevated blood sugar levels increase your risk of tooth decay, early gum disease (gingivitis) and advanced gum disease (periodontitis.) But if you’re careful, you can keep your teeth and gums healthy—and your smile bright.

Tooth care basics for people with diabetes

“Good diabetes control is key,” says Todd Coy, DMD, of the Cleveland Clinic. “If you have diabetes, your body’s ability to fight bacteria is reduced, so you don’t deal as well with issues like gum disease. But people who are diligent with their diabetes can reduce the risk of tooth decay and other oral problems to near-normal levels.”

Here’s how to keep your teeth and gums healthy:

Tell your dentist that you have diabetes, Coy says. Remind him when you go for checkups, and make sure he has the phone number of your endocrinologist.

If you have tooth pain, don’t ignore it, says Ira B. Lamster, DDC, M M.Sc, professor of health policy and management at the Mailman School of Public Health, Columbia University College of Dental Medicine. “The whole idea of prevention is very important,” he says. “If you think something is developing, do not delay. See your dentist.” If you get an infection in your mouth, it can be more severe than in someone without diabetes, which is all the more reason to contact your dentist right away.

Brush after meals and floss at least once a day, advises Coy. Individuals with diabetes tend to get more cavities at the root line of the teeth, Lamster says, and, as Coy points out, “As the gums recede, the vulnerable root surface is exposed.” Also try to avoid refined carbs and sugary foods. “If you are taking in a lot of these, this further increases your risk of tooth decay.”

Use a toothpaste with fluoride, and a soft-bristled toothbrush. An electric toothbrush can make the job much easier. Be sure to avoid vigorous scrubbing as this can irritate your gums.

Tooth Troubleshooting

It’s not uncommon for individuals with diabetes to have a reduction in saliva, which can increase your risk of cavities. Check out one of the many saliva substitutes available (brands include Numoisyn and Aquoral) to see if one will work for you. If you have this symptom, tell your dentist and your physician, Lamster recommends.

Watch out for warning signs of gum disease, which include gum bleeding, swelling and redness.

If you develop any of these symptoms, tell your dentist right away. Also tell him if you feel any loose teeth. The earlier treatment for periodontal disease begins, the better it is for your oral health.

Finally, if you smoke, quit. You’re at an increased risk for gum disease if you smoke, so find out about all the options to help you break the habit once and for all.