Avoiding the dentist's drill is usually at the forefront of our minds when sitting in the waiting room. But did you know your dental health specialist can diagnose a number of different ailments - just by looking in your mouth? The colour of your gums, the texture of your tongue and the gaps between your teeth, can all be symptoms of a wide range of conditions that go far beyond dental health. Dr Victor Alapont (above) from MyDental Clinic in Dublin has identified some of the key health issues that your dentist can spot, and how to treat them.
1… You could be at risk of developing mouth cancer
There are over 300 cases of mouth cancer diagnosed in Ireland every year. It is more common in women than men, and those who smoke or drink alcohol are particularly at risk. During a regular check-up, your dentist will look out for white or red spots, bumps, or sores or irritations that won't go away. As well as looking over the roof of your mouth, cheeks and gums, they will check under the tongues as well as the lips for any tenderness or numbness.
Half of mouth cancers are diagnosed at the early stages so it is something you can look at for at home: while brushing your teeth, look for any changes in your mouth or neck. Avoid the risk factors such as smoking or drinking excessively, wear a sunscreen and include lots of vitamin-rich foods in your diet.
2… You aren't eating your five a day
Believe it or not scurvy is back. The condition, which was widespread during the Victorian era, is caused by a lack of vitamin C and between 2009 and 2014, hospital admissions related to scurvy went up by 27pc. Low levels of vitamin C in the body mean it cannot produce collagen and without it, tissues begin to break down. In the mouth, scurvy can cause gums to swell, bleed and soften which can lead to tooth loss. Other symptoms include skin that bruises easily, shortness of breath, tiredness and joint soreness.
Smoking can reduce the amount of vitamin C that is absorbed, and disorders such as Crohn's disease may affect the body's ability to digest food leading to a deficiency. Eating a varied diet that includes a range of fruit and vegetables will keep scurvy at bay, and they needn't cost the earth. A kiwi fruit or large orange daily is enough vitamin C to keep gums and teeth healthy.
3… You could have an eating disorder
Regular bouts of vomiting covers the teeth in strong gastric acid from the stomach that can wear down the tooth's protective layer of enamel, causing teeth to become discoloured, cracked and sensitive. Teeth can become damaged, brittle and translucent in as little as six months of frequent vomiting, leading to sensitivity to cold and hot foods. Binge and purge episodes can also cause scratches and cuts inside the mouth, and the salivary glands to become enlarged.
After any bout of vomiting, try not to brush your teeth immediately - this is when the enamel is most vulnerable and will erode it further. Instead, rinse with water or a mix of water and baking soda to neutralise the acid. In cases of an eating disorder, dentists can offer advice on caring for teeth.
Iron deficiency anaemia is where a lack of iron reduces the number of red blood cells that carry oxygen around the body. While you may notice symptoms like fatigue, dizziness and palpitations, your dentist may notice shortness of breath, difficulty swallowing and ulcers at the corner of the mouth. A change in colour of the gums and tongue are other leading indicators: instead of healthy pink, gums in anaemia sufferers can take on a faded, whiter shade of their normal colour, and the tongue can be sore or abnormally smooth.
Anaemia can be caused by stomach ulcers, pregnancy, heavy periods or just not eating enough iron, and it can be confirmed by a blood test. As well as taking an iron supplement to boost your levels, it is important to choose iron-fortified cereals and bread, eat leafy greens like spinach, kale and broccoli and include lentils, beans, nuts and seeds in your diet.
5… You could have a sinus infection
Infected sinuses can cause pain in the jaw and around the teeth which can be mistaken for a toothache.
Before you resign yourself to expensive dental work, check if you are displaying other signs of sinusitis such as congestion, pain behind the eyes, headache, high temperature or a cough. If your dentist rules out abscesses, cavities and periodontal disease, speak to your doctor about a sinus infection.
6… You could be missing important vitamins and minerals
A diet that is poor in vital minerals and vitamins can cause all kinds of dental problems. Vitamin D is needed to absorb calcium which helps to prevent tooth decay and gum disease. Too little zinc can leave you open to gum disease, dry mouth and loss of sensation in your tongue.
B vitamins are particularly important for oral health. Low levels of vitamin B3, or niacin, can cause the tip of the tongue to become red and swollen, so up your intake of turkey, tuna, peas, mushrooms and nuts. Broccoli, spinach and kale are all good sources of vitamin B2 - without it your tongue can become sore and your lips, red and shiny. Animal protein like chicken, meat, milk and eggs are a good source of vitamin B12 levels which can prevent bad breath, loss of taste and a fissured tongue.
Salmon and eggs are good sources of zinc and vitamin D, so treat yourself to eggs benedict.
7… You could have diabetes
There are over 225,000 people living with diabetes in Ireland and it is estimated that over 850,000 people are at risk of developing the condition. Red, inflamed gums that bleed when brushing can be early indicators of the disease. Diabetics are at a higher risk of early gum disease - gingivitis - and serious gum disease - periodontitis. Gingivitis causes the gums to bleed when flossed or brushed, and begin to recede. Teeth can become looser and gaps between them can widen. If you are displaying these signs along with other symptoms - dry mouth and fatigue - consult your doctor as a matter of urgency.
8… You could be a nail-biter
Biting your nails is affecting more than your manicure. If you like a nibble, you are putting undue stress on your teeth, causing them to crack, chip and wear down. Braces wearers are leaving themselves open to root resorption, where the roots of the teeth become shorter, due to the increased pressure on teeth. Jaw pain, recessed gums and even headaches are other side effects caused by the grinding and clenching involved in nail biting, as well as the germs being passed into your mouth every time you feel like a nibble.