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A Look Inside Your Mouth: What Dentists Can Learn About Your Overall Health

Most people think their twice-a-year dental appointments are simply for a thorough cleaning and a checkup for cavities and other tooth-related issues. What they may not realize, however, is that a well-trained dentist can spot any number of health issues just by taking a look inside the mouth.

Sometimes problems with your teeth and gums can signify more than dental issues —anything from stress to a variety of diseases. Dentists increasingly look for telltale smells in addition to checking the appearance of your teeth, during your regular appointment.

According to The Washington Post, here are some of the more common health-related issues dentists can identify from peering inside your mouth:

  • Acid reflux — Teeth in the mouth of a patient who suffers from acid reflux can look worn and pitted. Not all the teeth are affected — it depends on where acid in the mouth settles as the patient sleeps.
  • Bulimia — Because bulimia wears away enamel, the upper front teeth will be very thin. In addition, the teeth might hurt. According to the American Dental Association, the teeth also can become translucent, and the patient might have bad breath.
  • Heart disease — If gums appear bright red or purple in color, the dentist might decide to check the patient’s blood pressure.
  • Kidney disease — Even from behind a surgical mask, a dentist can detect a sweet ammonia smell on the patient's breath that signifies kidney disease.
  • Leukemia — Fiery-red gums that are swollen and won’t heal are often an indicator of leukemia. Only a blood test, however, can distinguish if the patient has leukemia rather than diabetes.
  • Oral cancer — Biting into foods that are too hot can leave white spots on the gums. Spots that are still present after at least two weeks could be a sign of a malignancy.
  • Osteoporosis — Black spots on X-rays of your teeth are indicators of air pockets and areas of dead bone.
  • Pregnancy — Deeply swollen gums are sometimes signs of hormonal changes in the body.
  • Sleep apnea — Patients with this condition often have an enlarged tongue, and the gums are inflamed where air passes across them.
  • Stress — The condition of your gums can be a giveaway of a stressful life. Sometimes the gums have pulled away from your teeth, or teeth might be fractured from grinding. This can lead to a number of fungal, bacterial and viral infections that can thrive in the body after entering through one or more cracked teeth.
  • Type 2 diabetes — When the patient has no plaque but gums bleed with only a little pressure, it can indicate diabetes.

According to the Washington Post article, a dentist should spend more than five to ten seconds taking a look inside your mouth. In fact, a thorough mouth exam should take at least five minutes. And if your mouth does suggest you have a major health problem elsewhere in the body, your dentist may ask you to return in a few weeks for a recheck. Other dentists may immediately refer you to a physician.

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