YOU go to the dentist to get your teeth checked, right?
Actually, it’s only partially correct. Because while dentists do check up and fix your teeth, they can also spot a host of other health problems — and these don’t just involve your mouth.
Dentists can potentially detect warning signs of conditions like cancer, high blood pressure, diabetes, stroke, heart problems and anaemia.
“Our mouths are a window to the rest of our body,” says Dr Nigel Carter, chief executive of the UK Oral Health Foundation. “They are a good indicator of a person’s health, but also what problems they may be at risk of developing.”
And assessments can begin as soon as a patient enters the surgery, notes Dr Neil Banton, a dentist at Bupa Dental Care. “By using sight, sound and smell, dentists are in a prime position to spot health conditions in the rest of the body and inform patients before they have an opportunity to raise them with their doctor.”
Here, Banton outlines the conditions a dentist can spot...
“If I pass a patient in reception, I can quickly identify posture, movement, speech and behavioural issues, which I take into account at their examination,” he says. “Even something simple, like a patient struggling to complete their medical form, can be a signal of arthritis, or if a patient appears agitated it could suggest they’re in a lot of pain.
“I also look out for slurred speech or a croaky voice, as these may potentially be the result of nerve damage to the vocal cords, cancer, or a minor stroke.
“Speech problems can also indicate someone may suffer from dry mouth, which can be a result of not drinking enough fluids, causing a lack of saliva. This is a common symptom of Sjogren’s syndrome, a disease of the salivary glands. In rare cases, dry mouth can show in people who are malnourished or an alcoholic.
“Many medications can also cause a dry mouth, inflammation of the gums, or altered taste. All medication, whether prescribed or over-the-counter, has side-effects. This is why dentists ask you to complete a medical history form.”
“I take a lot of notice of a patient’s appearance when they’re called into the treatment room, as it can help determine whether precautions are necessary, as well as have a bearing on what treatment options are available. For example, someone who has a flushed face may suffer from high blood pressure, which means they won’t be eligible for sedation and/or certain drugs.
“I’ve also seen some patients who have very pale skin, accompanied by pale lips, tongue, palms of the hands, inside of the mouth and lining of the eyes, and after suggesting they visit their doctor and get a blood test, they’ve found their pale complexion is linked to anaemia.”
A closer examination of the face can help dentists identify everything from swollen glands to signs of diabetes.
“Swollen salivary glands can cause puffy cheeks and a tender, swollen jaw, which are easy to spot and suggestive of multiple health conditions, such as mumps.
“Swollen glands can also be a side-effect of bulimia.”
Inside a patient’s mouth, dentists can spot another sign of bulimia — tooth erosion.
“A distinct pattern of tooth wear can be due to repeated episodes of vomiting, which can contribute to increased cavities,” says Banton.
Dentists are trained to identify odours from the teeth and gums. “Certain smells mean different things — for example, the smell of pear drops is often indicative of uncontrolled diabetes.”
They will also look for signs of mouth and neck cancer, like an ulcer that won’t heal, or difficulty swallowing or chewing.
Not every disease is visible, and Banton says when a patient mentions they’re experiencing severe jaw pain or a burning sensation in the mouth, it could be a symptom of a heart attack.
“Around 5% of coronary episodes manifest in the jaw,” he says.