Lupus Awareness Month and Oral Health
May is Lupus Awareness Month. If you’re not quite sure how that relates to oral health, you’re not alone. Lupus is a little-understood disease, which is why health professionals make a point this time of year of educating people about its symptoms. This most common form is scientifically known as systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE) and it affects the entire body, including the mouth. People who have lupus need to be especially attentive to their hygiene, and people with persistent mouth problems should be aware of this possible explanation.
What Does Lupus Do?
Lupus is an autoimmune disorder caused by antibodies attacking the body’s own tissues, but it closely resembles many other diseases. It is most common in women of color between the ages of fifteen and forty-four, but people of every demographic can get it and it is unclear what causes it. As a result of the body’s attacks on itself, people with lupus develop chronic inflammation, including gingivitis. Other common problems include mouth ulcers, which are usually the most obvious sign there’s something wrong beyond normal oral infections, and dry mouth.
Gingivitis is inflammation of the gums. Its more advanced form is periodontal disease, and when it is allowed to go on for long enough, it can cause enough damage to the gums to loosen the teeth. Gingivitis is a common problem for people with diabetes, which lupus is often mistaken for in the absence of blood testing because both diseases cause widespread inflammation. Lupus can also cause inflammation in the temporomandibular joint, which connects the jaw to the skull. Inflammation at this location can cause a number of problems, including pain, difficulty opening the mouth, and teeth grinding.
Chronic inflammation is harmful to the body, but inflammation begins as part of the body’s normal immune response. People with lupus also have high rates of dry mouth (xerostomia) and of Sjögren’s syndrome, another autoimmune disorder. Sjögren’s causes the body to attack the tear and saliva glands. Without enough saliva, the body has a harder time fighting off bacterial infections, leading to more gum inflammation and tooth decay. Fungal infections also become harder to resist and can contribute to the development of mouth sores.
People with lupus may develop red and white ulcers throughout their mouths, especially on the roofs of their mouths, and on their lips. Sores are worse in people who are stressed and tired, and fatigue is another lupus symptom. Ulcers from lupus are not always painful and are often accompanied by nasal ulcers and a face rash.
What to Do
Lupus requires medical treatment. Your dentist can help you manage symptoms in your mouth by advising on better hygiene practices and anti-inflammatories and by combatting the damage caused by periodontal disease. Remember, people should always use soft-bristled toothbrushes. Dry mouth is treatable with throat moisturizers as well as products that stimulate saliva production, such as sugar-free gum and hard candy.