Find out if your mouth is trying to tell you about IBD, diabetes, cancer, and more.
Your mouth is an excellent barometer for what’s happening throughout your body. Your oral health can have an impact on other aspects of your well-being because the mouth leads into both the digestive tract and the respiratory tract, making it a prime spot for harmful (and sometimes helpful!) germs to enter. Here are three areas of your mouth to consider. If any of the info describes something you’re experiencing, schedule a visit with your physician or dentist to investigate further.
Not-so-fresh breath isn’t always the result of nibbling garlic bread or adding onions to your salad. Technically known as
halitosis, chronic bad breath is often a sign of poor oral hygiene or tobacco use—but it could also stem from problems beyond the mouth. These include sinus issues, postnasal drip, acid reflux, dry mouth, and mouth infections.
Your gums should be pink and firm, with no signs of recession or bleeding. Gums that bleed or are red or swollen can signal gingivitis (gum inflammation) or periodontitis (gum disease). If your teeth seem to be getting bigger or longer, that can be a sign that your gums are receding as a result of gum disease. A growing body of research suggests that gum disease is associated with an increased risk of seemingly unrelated conditions including cardiovascular disease and diabetes. Some scientists think the inflammation associated with gum disease may contribute to those conditions. That said, pale gums can also be a problem: This can suggest anemia or, if they are white and painful, leukoplakia, a potentially precancerous condition.
Interestingly, the tongue is considered an important indicator of health in traditional Chinese medicine (TCM), and a tongue examination is almost always part of a physical exam in that system. Practitioners of TCM believe that the shape, size, color, and texture of the tongue are related to various organ systems throughout the body.
But Western medicine also pays some attention to the tongue. For instance, a dry tongue and mouth can be more common with aging, but can also be a symptom of Sjögren’s syndrome, an autoimmune disorder that affects salivary glands. Medications, including some antidepressants, allergy drugs, and pain relievers, can also trigger dry mouth. Canker sores on the tongue or inside the mouth are usually caused by factors such as stress, sensitivity to acidic foods like citrus fruits and tomatoes, and minor injuries. However, they can sometimes be warning signs of certain conditions, including celiac disease, inflammatory bowel disease, auto immunity, and HIV/AIDS. Talk to your doctor, because additional testing is needed to confirm a diagnosis.
Dr Weil is the founder and director of the Andrew Weil Arizona Center for Integrative Medicine at the University of Arizona and a member of Prevention’s Medical Advisory Board.
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