© 2024 Texas Public Radio
Real. Reliable. Texas Public Radio.
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

TPR Lifeline: The Connection Between Diabetes & Oral Health

Diabetes affects one in seven adults in Bexar County. Of the 1400 diabetic patients Methodist Healthcare Ministries helped in the last two years, more than half required care from the dental department.

In today’s TPR Lifeline, Bioscience-Medicine reporter Wendy Rigby talks to the Dental Director of Methodist Healthcare Ministries, Dr. Philip Brown, about the connection between diabetes and oral health.


Rigby: Dr. Brown, what is it about diabetes that puts people at greater risk for dental problems?

Brown: Diabetic patients are generally poor wound healers. And they are more susceptible to periodontal disease. Diabetes can make it harder for you to maintain your blood sugar levels. If you can’t maintain your blood sugar level, you’re more susceptible to infection, which periodontal disease is. So it’s a two-way street. One feeds off the other.

How does a lack of saliva translate into a cavity risk and are diabetics more likely to have dry mouth?

Yes. Dry mouth can be one side effect of diabetes. Saliva normally washes away the bacteria and the different things in your mouth, the food and things like that. If there’s nothing to wash away this debris, then it accumulates on the teeth and can create cavities.

Let’s say you have an ulcer in your mouth, which is very common.


Credit Methodist Healthcare Ministries
Methodist Healthcare Ministries
Dr. Philip Brown, Dental Director of Methodist Healthcare Ministries, says a lot of his time is spent educating his diabetic patients about the importance of regular dental care in maintaining oral health.


Do diabetics have problems with those healing slowly?


So what can diabetics do to protect themselves from these unwanted side effects from their chronic health problem?

Well, aside from taking your insulin and having proper nutrition, you must maintain good oral health to eliminate that risk factor in your life. Most diabetics can go through life normally if they take their insulin, exercise, maintain good nutrition.

Should they get more frequent cleanings? Should they get deep cleanings? What can they do to help?

Just regular dental checkups. And if you find out that you have periodontal disease…that can be easily treated nowadays. And then just maintain your oral health. You know, if you find that your gums are bleeding when you brush or when you try to floss, or even sometimes when people eat their gums will start bleeding, that’s not healthy. You want to eliminate that factor. And this will also increase your chances of your diabetes improving.

Do people tend to put their oral health low on the list?

They sure do. Nowadays, we’re trying to change that trend a little bit.

And, of course, many of the diabetic complications can seem far away for people who have diabetes. But when it’s in your mouth it’s immediate and it’s not something that’s going to happen ten years from now. It’s giving you pain and heartache now.

Right now. That’s right.

We’ve heard a lot more about other types of health problems that diabetics face like the kidney problems and the blindness. So is this risk for mouth and gum issues just not talked about as much?

That’s true. It’s not talked about enough. When you talk about a treatment regimen for diabetes, patients are taught to get a foot exam, to get an eye exam, and to, you know, maintain good nutrition, take your medicine. But there’s been no talk in the past of maintaining oral health and the importance of oral health.

So you’re trying to change that.

Yes, we are.

At Methodist Healthcare Ministries, who are your clients? And as the dental director, how do you help them?

The underserved, mostly on the south side. The biggest part of helping my patients is educating them. You’d be surprised how many people think you’re supposed to grow up and as you get older, your teeth get loose and fall out. That’s not normal. You’re supposed to take your teeth to the grave. So we’re educating folks. And I think after 20 years, I think we have made a big impact in San Antonio. So now we’re trying to reach out farther down into South Texas where  some places have no dentist whatsoever, no dental care whatsoever. So it’s a tall task but I think we’re up for it.

You’re in the trenches.


Dr. Brown, thanks so much for the information.

Thank you.

Wendy Rigby is a San Antonio native who has worked as a journalist for more than 25 years. She spent two decades at KENS-TV covering health and medical news. Now, she brings her considerable background, experience and passion to Texas Public Radio.