01/25/2013 08:15 EST | Updated 03/26/2013 05:12 EDT

10 Dental Symptoms You Should Never Ignore

Sometimes tooth sensitivity or bad breath are just symptoms of a flu bug that will go away when your flu does. But sometimes, these symptoms that show up in the mouth are the body's way of letting you know that something much more serious is going on elsewhere in the body.

How to know when it's serious and when it's not?

Know these dental symptoms that you should never ignore and when to see your dentist:

1. Bleeding Gums

Your gums act like a gasket, sealing the spaces between teeth so food doesn't accumulate and bacteria can't invade the jawbone -- and the rest of your body.

Bleeding gums are an indicator for gingivitis or -- if the gingivitis is left untreated -- periodontitis, which is a serious infection that can lead to teeth loosening or even falling out. Both gingivitis and periodontitis are diseases caused by inflammation in the mouth due to plaque build-up along the gumline -- and inflammation in the mouth can lead to other inflammatory diseases, such as heart disease, stroke, atherosclerosis, and erectile dysfunction.

It's not normal for your gums to bleed if you are flossing and brushing every day. Bleeding gums despite proper oral care can be indicators for malnutrition, cancer, and other serious conditions.

2. Crooked Teeth

If your teeth are crooked or otherwise misaligned, it's a serious health condition. When teeth aren't properly aligned, food gets impacted in spaces in between the teeth and plaque builds up because these crooked spaces aren't easily reached by a toothbrush and floss. Facilitating the build-up of plaque in this way can lead to gum disease and other inflammatory diseases. Many people think that getting braces or wearing Invisalign are about having a "pretty smile" -- but straightening the teeth is actually a preventative health measure.


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3. Clicking or Popping Jaw or Earaches

An earache or sharp pain right in front of the ear can be a sign that you are suffering from TMD (Temporomandibular Disorders). Symptoms of TMD should never be ignored because TMD is a progressive disorder, meaning it only gets worse. If you wait to see a dentist, you may reach a point of no return where the only solution is painkillers for the rest of your life.

Causes of TMD include grinding or clenching the teeth, dislocation of the jaw, arthritis of the jaw, and stress.

Common symptoms of TMD:

• Pain or tenderness in the face, jaw, neck and shoulders, or in or around the ear when you chew, talk, or open your mouth wide

• Limited ability to open your mouth wide

• Jaw getting stuck or "locked" while mouth either open or closed

• Clicking or popping sounds in the jaw joint when opening or closing

• A tired feeling in the face

• Difficulty chewing or uncomfortable bite

• Headaches, dizziness, earaches, hearing problems

4. Flat Teeth

Look in the mirror -- do your front teeth look like they're all the same length or appear worn flat at the bottom? This is an indication that you have been grinding your teeth for quite some time.

See your dentist if you suspect you might be a grinder. Years of grinding have led to people wearing their teeth down to the point of needing veneers or crowns. Grinding can also be an indication that you're struggling to keep your airway open at night, meaning you might have sleep apnea.

5. Bad Breath Despite Flossing and Brushing

If you still have bad breath despite flossing daily and brushing at least twice a day, I'd recommend using a tongue scraper. If bad breath persists after that, you may have a more serious underlying condition, including a liver or kidney disorder and diabetes.

6. Increased Tooth Sensitivity to Hot and Cold

After grinding your teeth for many years, the gums recede and small V-shaped indentations form at the base of your teeth. The strong compressive forces of grinding lead to loss of tooth structure in these areas. These defects are called abfractions and they make your teeth overly sensitive to hot and cold food and liquids, or even to breathing in cold air. Sudden onset of tooth sensitivity can be caused by many factors.

7. Tooth Pain

If you have throbbing tooth pain when trying to bite into a bowl of ice cream or other cold food, it could be that the tooth's nerve has become damaged. Get it out checked out at the dentist's office because it could be a cavity, in which case, the bacteria in your mouth could infect the tooth and you don't want the infection to spread to other parts of your body.

8. Snoring

Snoring is another indication that you may have sleep apnea, as it indicates that your airway closes when you approach the deeper stages of sleep. See a sleep specialist MD and see your dentist to have a mandibular advancement device made for you. The mandibular advancement device will keep your airway open at night, stop the snoring, and improve the quality of your sleep, and health, immensely.

9. Flossing Only Before Your Dentist Visit

Does this sound like you? Many people skip flossing until a week or a few days before their dental appointment, in fear of the hygienist's lecture. This is what I like to call a symptom of denial -- no one likes flossing, but it's absolutely critical to the health of your entire body (not just your mouth) and to preventing disease. Get in the habit now if you aren't already -- you'll save yourself decades of pain and big dental bills later on in life.

As you work to get yourself in the habit, remember this: one day of flossing won't impact your health -- just as one day of exercise isn't going to improve your health either. It'll take time to develop the habit so don't be too hard on yourself when you forget.

10. Fearing the Dentist

If you're not having regular dentist visits because you're afraid of the dentist, this could be a symptom of dental anxiety, which should never be ignored. People who suffer from dental anxiety are often told to "buck up," which is the wrong approach and is why it's so important to instil in your children good dental habits and make sure they have a pleasant experience at the dentist. Dental anxiety is a serious condition that prevents millions from getting the care they need each year. If you have dental anxiety, find a dentist who specializes in addressing it. Years of not seeing the dentist only exacerbates the problem, leaving people with huge dental bills decades later, in compromised health, and a lot of pain.