Recognizing the Warning Signs

Written by Rachel Nall, RN, BSN | Published on January 12, 2015
Medically Reviewed by George Krucik, MD, MBA on January 12, 2015

The Importance of Oral Health

According to the American Dental Association (ADA), an estimated 100 million Americans don’t go to the dentist on a yearly basis. This is concerning. Regular oral care, like brushing and flossing frequently and going to the dentist at least two times per year, can prevent most severe dental conditions.

Lingering tooth pain or gum swelling can contribute to larger issues if left untreated. Beyond losing your teeth, poor dental health is associated with increased risk for conditions such as heart disease. Remember that you don’t need to have symptoms to go to your dentist. You can keep your mouth as healthy and pain-free as possible if you go before symptoms start.

A Spot or Sore That Doesn’t Heal

Ulcers, sores, or tender areas in the mouth can indicate a number of health conditions. Not all of them just affect your teeth and gums.

For example, nonhealing wounds in the mouth can sometimes indicate diabetes. People with diabetes have a more difficult time healing wounds than those who don’t have diabetes. If you have a wound in your mouth that doesn’t become smaller or less painful in a week or two, make an appointment to see your dentist and your primary care doctor. You may need to have your blood sugar levels checked to ensure they are not too high.

Spots or sores in the mouth can also indicate oral cancer. These lesions can appear as white areas (known as leukoplakia) or as red lesions (erythroplakia).

Additional symptoms include:

  • ear pain
  • hoarseness
  • jaw swelling
  • numbness in the tongue or throat area
  • trouble moving the jaw or tongue
  • trouble swallowing

Call and make an appointment with your dentist if you’re experiencing any of these symptoms.

Bleeding or Swollen Gums

Seeing blood in the sink or on your toothbrush after you brush your teeth can be cause for concern. Healthy gum tissue should not bleed unless you are brushing too aggressively.

Your gums (gingiva) hold your teeth in place. They’re responsible for creating a barrier between your tooth roots, nerves, and blood vessels and the foods and drinks you consume. You could lose a tooth or teeth without healthy gum tissue.

Bleeding or swollen gums can indicate periodontal or gum disease. This suggests you have a significant amount of bacteria in your mouth that are causing inflammation in your gums. According to the ADA, half of all adults older than age 30 have gum disease. See your dentist, who can examine your gum tissue and teeth.

Bad Breath

Sure, sometimes bad breath is the result of the garlic-filled dinner you just ate or a sign that you need to drink more water. But chronic bad breath can be a symptom of dental cavities and gum disease. Your dentist can provide tips to keep bad breath at bay even if you don’t have signs of dental decay.

Sensitivity to Hot and Cold

You can expect some increased sensitivity following dental procedures like cavity fillings or crown placements. But sudden, unexplained changes to sensitivity mean you should call your dentist. Increased temperature sensitivity is a symptom of a dental abscess, which is a bacterial infection of a tooth or the gum area next to a tooth root. Additional dental abscess symptoms include a severe toothache, fever, or tender lymph nodes under your jawline or in your neck. If you have facial swelling too, seek emergency care. If left untreated, the infection may spread throughout your body and can become life threatening.

Increased temperature sensitivity could also mean you have a cavity or thinning of the dental enamel. A dentist can provide treatment for both of these concerns.

Pain

Pain can be an unfortunate indicator that your mouth is not as healthy as it could be. While the pain may temporarily subside, it’s likely to return. Make an appointment to see your dentist for a check-up. 

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