7 Signs of Disease Your Teeth Can Reveal

Updated: Nov. 20, 2020

Dentists are trained to spot more than just cavities: These red flags of dental problems in your mouth may signal a health issue happening elsewhere in the body.

woman's smile with white teeth

You may have type 2 diabetes

Red, swollen gums that may bleed are the hallmarks of periodontal disease—an incredibly common condition that affects more than 47 percent of Americans 30 and older and more than 70 percent of adults 65 and older, according to the CDC. Periodontal disease is brought on by bacteria in the mouth that infect the tissues and create plaque. “Diabetes makes periodontal disease worse,” says Paulo Camargo, professor of periodontics and associate dean for clinical dental sciences at UCLA School of Dentistry. “Periodontal disease can also make the blood sugar more difficult to control.” Research shows that diabetes is a major risk factor for periodontitis, a more serious form of periodontal disease that can damage soft tissues and destroy the bone that supports teeth. “If gums bleed a lot and are swollen or the patient is having frequent abscesses or infections, the dentist might start to question if you have a family history of diabetes,” says Sally Cram, a periodontist in Washington, DC. Diabetes isn’t the only health problem associated with periodontal disease: The disease, which triggers a harmful, inflammatory response, is also linked to a higher risk of heart attack and stroke.

man with hand on chest

You have acid reflux

Eating garlic knots and forgetting to brush your tongue aren’t the only causes of bad breath. In some cases, especially if you already have a solid brushing and flossing regimen in place, a lingering case of halitosis can signal a health problem, such as gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD). You may not even know you have it since GERD is sometimes a silent condition and can occur during sleep. But over time, GERD can wear away your teeth. In fact, research has shown that having GERD significantly increases your risk of tooth erosion.

stressed woman at office desk, hands on head

You’re majorly stressed out

Grinding or clenching your teeth can be a sign that you’re under pressure. Over time, you can grind down and damage your teeth, causing sensitivity and pain. “You can eventually get to the dentin, under the enamel,” says Camargo. “Your bite height can change and you can create TMJ problems. There’s also a risk of fracture—you can break teeth.” Another sign of stress? Having a painful canker sore or two. Although the jury is still out when it comes to the exact cause of canker sores, they occur more frequently in people who are stressed, notes Dr. Cram. Although the sores are painful, they’re thankfully benign. That said, if you have a white (or red) lesion in your mouth that doesn’t clear up in two weeks, that can be a sign of oral cancer and warrants a doctor’s visit and biopsy right away. Here are 13 more silent signs of oral cancer you shouldn’t ignore.

hands holding bottom dentures
istock/Dr. Heinz Linke

Your bone mineral density is low

Loose teeth, including dentures that have become loose, and receding gums can be signs of low bone mineral density, which can lead to osteoporosis. Women with osteoporosis are three times more likely to experience tooth loss than those who do not have the disease, according to the National Institute of Health (NIH).  The National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases suggests that dental X-rays can be used as a screening tool for osteoporosis, noting that research shows dental X-rays are effective in identifying people with osteoporosis compared to those with normal bone density. Be aware of these other signs of bone disease.

eye drop bottle with drop going into woman's eye

You may have an autoimmune disease

If your mouth feels as dry as a desert, one possible cause is the autoimmune disease Sjogren’s syndrome, which primarily affects women over 40. With the disease, the body attacks the glands that make saliva and tears, causing dryness in the mouth and eyes and increasing the risk of cavities. Although there’s no cure for Sjogren’s, the symptoms can be managed with treatments that help bring back some moisture. Try these natural remedies for combating dry mouth.

woman pinching her waist

You’re dealing with an eating disorder

Dentists can spot the signs of anorexia and bulimia in their patients. With anorexia, nutritional deficiencies, including a lack of calcium, iron, and B vitamins, can cause tooth decay, gum disease, canker sores, and dry mouth, according to the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA). With bulimia, stomach acid from vomiting can erode tooth enamel, causing sensitivity to hot and cold food and changing the color and shape of the teeth.  In some cases, teeth can become weak enough that they actually break. Redness and cuts along the roof of the mouth brought on by purging is a big red flag for dentists since damage to the soft palate is rare in people who are healthy. The unique erosion pattern among people who suffer from bulimia can also be a red flag: The inner surfaces of the teeth tend to be affected because that’s where the hydrochloric acid coming up from the stomach first lands. People who are vigorous brushers usually have erosion on the outside surfaces. Pay attention to these other signs you, or someone you love, might suffer from an eating disorder.

woman with head down, hands clutching stomach

You may have celiac disease

According to the National Institutes of Health, dentists are in a unique position to identify celiac disease in patients if they know what to look for. Even though the condition—an autoimmune disease in which gluten damages the small intestine—is associated with gastrointestinal symptoms, celiac disease can also affect the teeth, leading to dental enamel defects. The disease can cause tooth discoloration: namely, white, yellow, or brown spots on the teeth. It can also cause teeth to appear pitted or banded, like a groove going across the teeth. These defects are symmetrical and typically crop up on the incisors and molars. Other oral symptoms of celiac disease include recurring canker sores; a smooth, red tongue (tongues are normally bumpy); and dry mouth.