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On the front lines of dental care

A dental hygienist's important role

Regular dental care is an essential part of your overall health, which means your dental hygienist does much more than leave your teeth feeling clean and smooth.

If you're a regular at your dentist's office, you may spend more time with your hygienist than your dentist. It's also possible you see your hygienist more than you see your personal doctor.

Along with your dentist, your hygienist is looking for signs of oral disease — and may be the first person to discover symptoms of other health-related problems, such as heart disease or diabetes.

“The mouth is the gateway to good health,” says Heather Williams, a hygienist at Prairie Dental in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. “Your gums, teeth, and mouth have much to say about your health, overall. Sometimes, the first sign of disease can show up in the mouth.”

Diseases like diabetes, certain types of oral cancer, and even some vitamin deficiencies can be first identified in a dentist’s office at a regular examination. In addition to diseases, your hygienist may have insights into bad habits, like smoking, chewing tobacco, and foods and drinks you should be avoiding.

“Lack of good oral care can have a negative impact on your overall health,” says Williams. “There is more to it than meets the eye.”

Here are a few things your hygienist knows:

  1. If you floss regularly.

    "Yes, I can tell if you haven’t been flossing regularly or effectively,” says Williams. “If you floss daily, and do it correctly, the gums are generally light pink and firm, not red or swollen. Unhealthy gums that aren’t used to being flossed are often swollen and bleed easily.”

  2. The source of bad breath.

    "Sometimes, patients simply need better oral hygiene,” says Williams. “In some cases, however, bad breath can mean something else."

    Breath that smells “fruity” could be an indicator of diabetic ketoacidosis, according to Williams. A mouth that smells fishy or similar to ammonia may indicate kidney problems. Foul smelling breath could indicate other issues, such as acid reflux or sinus issues.

    “Whatever the case, we will suggest you see your health care provider if we suspect something is wrong,” says Williams.

  3. If you have symptoms of heart disease.

    Poor oral health combined with other risk factors may contribute to heart disease. Gum disease can let bacteria enter your blood stream and locate elsewhere in the body. In other words, if you have plaque in your mouth, it could mean you have plaque in your arteries.

  4. If you have symptoms of diabetes.

    “Dental hygiene is critically important for people with diabetes,” says Williams. Poor blood sugar control can increase your risk of gum disease, cavities, tooth loss, oral infections and more. People with diabetes are more likely to get infections — including gum infections — and have a harder time fighting them off.
  5. What you've been eating (or drinking).

    "Decay in between the teeth is often due to something in the diet,” says Williams. “Sodas, energy drinks and sports drinks are a major contributor to tooth decay among teens and adults. Fruit snacks, raisins, natural dried fruits, and fruit juices are often associated with tooth decay in children."

    Williams points out that dental X-rays can be very helpful in detection and diagnosis of tooth decay. “A tooth may appear healthy on the outside. But an X-ray may confirm there is decay between the teeth.”

  6. Signs of oral cancer.

    “Here, we are looking for any changes in the hard and soft tissues,” says Williams. “We are looking for symptoms such as unexplained bleeding, chronic sores or speckled patches, thickenings, swelling, bumps or lumps.”

Floss like you mean it

"Flossing is as important as brushing," says Williams. "It removes the plaque and food particles in places the toothbrush can't reach. Just make sure you're taking the time to do it correctly. You don't want to overdo it or underdo it." According to Williams, the most common mistake is not flossing under the gum tissue. “Gently ease the floss until it is under the gum tissue. The floss should hug the tooth or look like the letter ‘c’ wrapped around your tooth.”

To learn more, check out the American Dental Association External Site.