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What Is Type 1 Diabetes?

What is type 1 diabetes? It's a disease in which the pancreas is unable to produce insulin. Insulin is a hormone that controls the amount of glucose (sugar) in the blood. Type 1 diabetes is usually diagnosed in children and adolescents and is a lifelong (chronic) disease. In type 1 diabetes, there is no insulin to let glucose get into the cells, so sugar builds up in the bloodstream where it can cause life-threatening complications. Diabetes lowers the body's ability to fight infection and slows healing. People with type 1 diabetes must take insulin injections every day. In type 2 diabetes, the body may not be producing enough insulin or the insulin is not working adequately (insulin resistance). The pancreas initially makes extra insulin to compensate, but with time fails to produce enough to regulate blood glucose levels. This type of diabetes usually develops in adulthood and is more common. According to the American Diabetes Association, only 5 percent of people with diabetes have the type 1 form of the disease. People who suffer from diabetes are at high risk for tooth decay and other oral health problems.

Symptoms Exhibited by Children with Diabetes

According to JDRF, children with diabetes may exhibit the following symptoms:

  • Thirst.
  • Fatigue.
  • Weight loss.
  • Frequent urination.
  • Vision changes.
  • Fruity, sweet-smelling breath.
Good blood sugar control requires a balance of food, exercise and medication. A diet rich in calcium and vitamin D helps to ensure strong bones and teeth. Proper blood sugar control is key to controlling and preventing oral health problems. Diabetes can contribute to bacteria growth in the mouth, plaque buildup and gum disease while also weakening the body's ability to fight back.

Other Oral Complications

According to the American Dental Association (ADA), several oral complications can occur in patients with diabetes. Tooth decay is a major risk factor for diabetic patients. Plaque is a sticky film of bacteria that forms in the mouth. The bacteria feed on starches and sugars in food and beverages and form acidic by-products that damage teeth and cause cavities. The higher the blood sugar level, the greater the supply of sugars. An elevated blood sugar level assists in the formation of more acids that decay the teeth.

Another oral complication that can arise from diabetes is gum disease. If plaque isn't removed on a daily basis, the gums become red and inflamed. This is the first sign of gingivitis, or inflammation of the gums. Over time, the buildup of plaque eventually hardens into calcium deposits known as tartar. A calculus can form above the gum line and can also develop below the gum line. Gum disease can spread into the underlying bone and cause destruction of the teeth's supporting tissues and supporting bone.

People with diabetes can also contract another oral problem called thrush. Thrush is a fungal infection that occurs in the mouth. A high sugar level in the saliva promotes the growth of fungus. This infection can appear as lesions in the mouth and throat. Oral fungal infections can be treated with special mouthwashes, with anti-fungal medication and by controlling blood sugar levels.

Dry mouth may also develop because of consistently high blood sugar levels. It's caused by a decrease in saliva flow. A lack of moisture can create a breeding ground in the mouth for bacteria. This increases the risk of tooth decay and gum disease. Dry mouth can also lead to soreness, ulcers and infections. To help relieve dry mouth, try sipping water throughout the day, chewing sugarless gum and using an over-the-counter mouth moisturizer.

Diabetics are more prone to the development of oral infections and gum disease. Those who don't have good control over their blood sugar levels tend to have more oral health problems. Diabetes causes the blood vessels to thicken, which slows the flow of nutrients and the removal of harmful wastes. The body's reduced resistance to infection increases the risk of gum and bone tissue destruction.

Motivation at Home

Parents play a major role in effective diabetes management by helping children control their blood sugar levels, which is key to optimal oral health. To prevent oral health problems, children must follow a proper dental hygiene routine. It's important to reinforce the proper oral hygiene techniques with children at an early age. Motivate children and make brushing fun so they will look forward to maintaining healthy oral habits.

Prevention Tips

According to the ADA, brushing teeth at least twice a day with a fluoride toothpaste is very important because it helps protect the teeth against tooth decay. Using a fluoridated toothpaste — for example, Colgate TotalSF Advanced or Colgate® Kids Fruit-Flavored Anti-Cavity Fluoride — prevents plaque problems that cause cavities and gum disease. Flossing at least once a day is imperative because it helps remove plaque between the teeth and beneath the gum line. A visit to the dentist for professional dental cleanings should occur at least twice a year. Morning appointments are advisable because blood sugar levels tend to be more stable at this time. Make sure the dentist knows that your child has diabetes so that he can check the mouth for dry or white patches and see whether the gums are sore, swollen or bleeding. The dentist may suggest the use of antimicrobial rinses to regulate the bacteria level in the mouth. Enforcing good oral hygiene habits early in your child's life is important to his overall well-being.

Maintaining Healthy Habits

You may still be asking yourself, "What is type 1 diabetes?" One answer is that it's a disease that requires a lifelong commitment that includes proper dental care. Because oral health and diabetes affect each other, a parent's top priorities should be to keep blood sugar levels under control and to instill excellent oral health habits. This will lead to improved oral health, which affects the patient's overall health. The best oral defenses for children with diabetes are daily brushing and flossing, regular dental checkups and conscientious blood sugar control. These habits will help children establish the foundation of a lifetime of good oral health.

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