Denise Foley

When your dentist peers into your mouth, he can tell more than whether you brush, floss or just ate popcorn. Your teeth, gums, tongue and breath are, in fact, full of medical information -- like whether you’re at risk of a heart attack or have cancer, anemia, diabetes, an eating disorder or even compromised immunity.

We asked Dr. Steven Ghareeb, a dental surgeon in West Virginia and spokesman for the American Academy of General Dentistry, about some common symptoms and their possible implications about your health. Here’s a look at just how much your mouth can say about your health:

What It Looks Like

What It Could Be

Why It’s Important

Red, infected gums

Gum disease

Gum disease may seem harmless, but the bacteria that cause it are actually linked to heart disease, diabetes and the risk of a low-weight birth says Ghareeb. Treating gum disease will help eliminate these risks.

Pale gums

Anemia or bad circulation

Knowing you have this deficiency of oxygen-carrying red blood cells can help you stay on top of it by getting more iron. You may also have a circulation problem, and blood circulation systems that don’t deliver can create serious complications.

Fruity breath


Unless you just chewed gum, fruity breath results when the body is burning fat for energy rather than carbohydrates -- and that’s a red flag for diabetes, says Ghareeb.

Worn tooth enamel

Eating disorder or gastric reflux

Eroded tooth enamel is a sign of bulimia, says Ghareeb: When you binge and then purge, stomach acid washes over the teeth and wears away tooth enamel. But it can also signal gastric reflux. “When we see consistent halitosis (bad breath) and certain wear patterns on the teeth, we suspect nighttime gastric reflux,” says Ghareeb. You may not even be aware you have it if it happens at night, but left untreated, it can cause difficulty swallowing, ulcers or scarring of your esophagus.

Black, hairy tongue

Autoimmune disease, HIV or diabetes

These serious diseases can cause your tongue to appear black and hairy, says Ghareeb. It’s caused by a buildup of candida (aka yeast) on the tiny rounded projections, called “papillae,” on the tongue. Instead of shedding as they normally do, the papillae can continue to grow until they resemble hair.

Sore spots on the tongue

Canker sores or oral cancer

“If canker sores last longer than a couple of weeks, they could be oral cancer,” says Ghareeb. Catching oral cancer early can prevent it from spreading to the neck, lungs and other body parts.

White coating on the tongue

Thrush, compromised immunity, HIV

Normally, this is a sign of infection -- often thrush, an overgrowth of yeast, says Ghareeb. But it can also be the sign of poor dental care, a compromised immune system or even HIV. The right diagnosis will help you find the right treatment.


So the next time you’re considering skipping out on your appointment, don’t. See your dentist regularly and ask about any changes you’ve noticed since your last visit -- not just with your teeth, but your gums, cheeks and tongue as well. It will certainly save your dental health, and it might even save your life.


Denise Foley is the former deputy editor and editor at large of Prevention. She is also the co-author of five books on health and parenting.


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