How Eating Disorders Can Affect Your Mouth

Eating disorders such as bulimia and anorexia can cause significant, lasting side effects on the health of your smile. Working with your dental care providers can help you reduce your risk of significant tooth damage.

Key takeaways:

Eating disorders affect teeth & gums

Eating disorders are serious health conditions that can have a significant impact on various aspects of a person's life, including oral health. If left untreated, eating disorders can contribute to a range of oral health issues, including enamel erosion, sensitive teeth, tooth decay, and gum disease. Sometimes, dental professionals can detect eating disorders in their patients and, in turn, provide supportive methods to help protect their oral health.

Eating disorders can leave a lasting impact on your oral health, especially if you are suffering from conditions such as anorexia. It can lead to a significant reduction in the production of saliva, which can cause dry mouth (xerostomia). Saliva is essential for keeping your mouth moist and healthy, as it helps to neutralize acids produced by bacteria and wash away food particles throughout the day. When the mouth is excessively dry, it becomes more susceptible to tooth decay.

Bulimia's impact on dental health

When someone suffers from an eating disorder such as bulimia nervosa, they experience cycles of binging and purging, resulting in excessive acid exposure due to frequent vomiting. Stomach acids are highly erosive. After several bouts of purging, people with bulimia tend to exhibit signs of enamel erosion, particularly along the backs of their upper front teeth.

Scrubbing your teeth with a toothbrush immediately after vomiting can spread stomach acids around even further, leading to additional enamel erosion. For oral health purposes, rinsing with tap water is usually best after a bout of nausea and waiting at least a half hour to brush your teeth.

Nutritional deficiencies and gum health

In addition to dry mouth and acid erosion, anorexia, and bulimia can also lead to a decrease in the intake of essential vitamins and minerals, such as calcium, phosphorus, and vitamin D, which are crucial for maintaining strong and healthy teeth and gums. Because people with nutritional deficiencies are typically at a higher rate of developing periodontal disease, eating disorders can interfere with your goals of a healthy smile. Particularly when it comes to red, inflamed, or bleeding gums.

Do dentists suspect eating disorders?

Yes, dentists can typically tell or at least suspect if you have an eating disorder by examining your mouth and oral tissues. If your dentist suspects that you may be suffering from an eating disorder, they will refer you to a health professional for further evaluation and treatment. Rest assured that all recommendations and referrals are made in confidence, and your privacy comes first at all times.

In addition to offering you a professional referral for your eating disorder treatment, your dental team will also adjust your care plan to better accommodate high-risk factors like decay and acid erosion. For instance, your dentist may discuss adding a fluoride gel or rinse to your daily oral care routine to help remineralize weak areas of your teeth. They will also offer oral hygiene instruction as it relates to cleaning your mouth after vomiting, such as rinsing with tap water and waiting a minimum of half an hour to brush.

Signs indicating eating disorders for dentists

Dental professionals are often the first line of defense in identifying and referring individuals who may be struggling with an eating disorder. They can detect eating disorders through a range of signs during the dental exam, including:

  • Dry mouth. As mentioned earlier, anorexia can lead to a significant reduction in the production of saliva, which can cause a dry mouth. This is a clear sign that an individual may be suffering from an eating disorder.
  • Tooth decay. A significant decrease in the intake of essential vitamins and minerals or a high intake of unhealthy foods and drinks can cause upticks in tooth decay.
  • Gum disease. A reduction in the production of saliva and the presence of vitamin deficiencies can increase the risk of gum disease, an infection affecting the soft gum tissue and bones that support the teeth.
  • Enamel erosion. Individuals who engage in purging behaviors are at an extremely higher risk of enamel erosion. This is because the acid produced by vomiting can erode the protective outer layer of the teeth, leading to thinning enamel, yellow teeth, a higher rate of sensitivity, and more prevalent tooth decay.

It’s completely natural to feel self-conscious about seeing a dental professional if you suffer from an eating disorder. However, your dental team is here to help assist you regardless of your co-existing health conditions. Their input and preventative resources can help you reduce your risk of decay and tooth loss caused by an eating disorder like bulimia or anorexia.

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