While you’re probably thinking about cavities during a teeth cleaning, your dentist is looking for a whole lot more.
“The mouth is the window to the body,” says David Silverstrom, D.D.S., of the Silverstrom Group in Livingston, New Jersey.
Your dentist can spot diseases like cancer, anemia, and diabetes in a regular examination, says Dr. Silverstrom. He or she may also be able to tell you your bad habits and favorite beverages just by looking at your teeth.
Here’s what your dentist may find when you open up and say “Ahh.”
1. You flossed right before your appointment—and that’s the only time.
Sorry, but you can’t fool your dentist into thinking you floss daily by doing it the night before or morning of your visit.
“The gums of people who only floss right before a visit are bleeding or look damaged,” says Timothy Stirneman, D.D.S., of All Smiles Dental in Algonquin, Illinois. “Healthy gums are nice and tight and pink.”
Santa Monica-based dentist Kenneth Wong, D.D.S., is on to you, too. “When patients floss right before coming in for a cleaning, I can see the slices where the floss cut at the gum because they were overzealous,” he says.
2. You bite your nails.
Your dentist may be able to tell you bite your nails without even looking at your hands.
“Signs include chips and cracking of [your] teeth, plus wear and tear on the teeth from the constant stress on them,” says Keith Arbeitman, D.D.S., of Arbeitman & Shein in New York City. “This can cause your teeth to become uneven and lead to jaw pain and discomfort.”
Patients that bite their nails using their front teeth usually have flat, leveled-off front teeth, says Kyle Stanley, D.D.S., of Helm, Nejad, Stanley in Beverly Hills. “The nails themselves are not what cause the damage, but rather, the contact that occurs between the top and bottom teeth.”
3. You have reflux, bronchitis, or kidney failure.
General bad breath can be categorized as halitosis, Dr. Arbeitman says. But dentists are also trained to identify “fruity” and “fishy” smells, which can mean numerous things.
Fruity breath could indicate uncontrolled diabetes or a dietary fast that has gone too far, while fishy breath could be a sign of kidney or liver failure, says Dr. Arbeitman. If the smell is “very foul,” he says, it could be anything from gastroesophageal reflux (GERD) to an underlying lung abscess, bronchitis, or a tonsil stone.
The first thing your dentist should do is rule out that the odor is coming from your teeth and gums, says Timothy Chase, D.M.D., of SmilesNY in New York City.
“After that, he should recommend you an ENT [doctor] to rule out sinus issues, and a GI doc to rule out reflux issues,” Dr. Chase says.
4. You have a sinus infection.
Patients often call Ira Handschuh, D.D.S., of the Dental Designer Center in New York, saying that they need a root canal. But more often than not, “it’s actually a sinus infection, and not a tooth problem at all,” Dr. Handschuh says.
The roots of your top teeth are positioned in the same area as the floor of the sinuses. And both sinus infections and toothaches can show symptoms of pressure.
Try this simple home test: Bend over to touch your toes. If the pressure or pain increases just by doing this, the pain probably isn’t tooth-related, says Dr. Handschuh. See an ENT doctor or primary care physician before seeing your dentist, he says.
5. You have a vitamin deficiency.
When you’re deficient in certain vitamins and minerals, you may experience several oral conditions, says John P. Dougherty, D.D.S., M.A.G.D., of Artistic Dental at the Biltmore in Phoenix. These conditions can include burning tongue syndrome, tissue sloughing off, increased infections, delayed healing, and easy-to-bleed gums.
“Surprisingly, iron deficiencies show up in many ways in your mouth,” says Dr. Dougherty. “It can give some patients severe sores in the corners of their mouth, while others have changes in their tongues. Some may experience a painful burning sensation, or all the small papillae fall off their tongue, leaving it glossy and smooth. Getting more iron will solve these problems.”
6. You have diabetes.
Imbalances in sugar often lead to a rapid change in the health of your gums, including increased swelling, bleeding, and sensitivity, Dr. Handschuh says. The consistency of saliva may also change, and you could have more decay.
“These may all be signs of sugar levels that are out of control, so dentists can alert patients to see their doctor to check for diabetes,” says Dr. Handschuh.
7. You have oral cancer.
The first signs of oral cancer can be seen from unexplained bleeding in your mouth; white, red, or speckled patches in your mouth; a change in the way your teeth fit together; and swelling, thickenings, lumps, bumps, or eroded areas on your lips, gums, or other areas inside your mouth, says Michael Apa, D.D.S., of Rosenthal Apa Group in New York City.
If your dentist spots any of these signs, he or she will recommend consulting with an oral surgeon to schedule a biopsy of any suspicious tissue, says Dr. Apa.
8. You love Gatorade.
You may know why you chipped your tooth, but there could be underlying factors that weakened it and made it susceptible to being chipped in the first place, says Hugh Flax, D.D.S., of Flax Dental in Atlanta.
Dr. Flax says that teeth can be softened by sodas and other sugary beverages over time, which may make a tooth more susceptible to chipping. Energy drinks, which tend to be even more acidic than soft drinks, may cause even more damage to tooth enamel, he says.