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Health department: Diabetes linked to dental care

Diabetes patient Trinidad Tellez, 54, left, reviews dental hygiene tips with Jorelle Alexander, director of dental health at the Lake County Health Department. (Cassandra Dowell –
Diabetes patient Trinidad Tellez, 54, left, reviews dental hygiene tips with Jorelle Alexander, director of dental health at the Lake County Health Department. (Cassandra Dowell –

When Trinidad Tellez, 54, began losing weight and needing to use the washroom frequently, he knew something was wrong.

“All  of a sudden, I lost 20 pounds but I wasn’t exercising,” Tellez, of Waukegan, said.

Tellez’s symptoms were a result of type 2 diabetes, which he was diagnosed with about five years ago.
Tellez lost his father to type 2 diabetes just one year prior to his own diagnosis.

“I felt really bad,” Tellez said, adding that he has also been epileptic for more than 20 years. “It depressed me a whole lot.”

Tellez, who is unemployed and does not have insurance, is able to receive routine health care through the Be Well-Lake County program at the Lake County Health Department and Community Health Center in North Chicago. The program is a collaboration between the county and NorthShore University HealthSystem that offers diabetes management resources for underserved type 2 diabetic patients.

According to program data, about 54,000 Lake County residents have been diagnosed with diabetes. The program has served more than 670 patients with type 2 diabetes since its founding in 2009.

New to the program is a dental care component that offers specialized oral care treatment for patients who attended a dental screening in July. Doctors and dentists agree that poor oral health, such as caused by gum disease, decay, infection and other problems, can affect diabetes and make management of the disease more difficult.

Tellez is one of 21 patients who chose to participate in the dental screening offered through the Be Well program. Prior to enrollment, Tellez had not seen a dentist for nearly 12 years, he said.

“I had quite a bit of plaque,” Tellez said. “My biggest problem is that I don’t floss enough. Now, I’m taking better care of my teeth. I used to put off flossing and before I knew it I’d have a lot of build up.”

Jorelle Alexander, a doctor and director of dental health at the Lake County Health Department, said about 90 percent of the patients receiving dental care through the Be Well program have periodontal disease, which causes the loss of tissue attachments and loss of bone around the teeth.

“Diabetes predisposes them to have periodontal disease,” Alexander said. “[Infections in the mouth] make it impossible to control your diabetes.”

While Alexander said the Be Well program has always stressed good oral hygiene, a recent grant allowed the program to offer a dental screening and tools that patients would need to keep their mouths clean.

“At the screening we discussed what they need to look for, warning signs and what needs to be done on a day-to-day basis,” she said.

Alexander said underserved populations tend to encounter more barriers when accessing health care, especially dental care.

“Underserved populations tend not to know how to access dental care, nor do they really understand the importance of dental care,” Alexander said. “They think, ‘I only go to the dentist because I have a toothache,’ not understanding that they have to go to the dentist all the time.”

At the screening, patients received such items as toothbrushes, floss, mouthwash and more. Those patents who attended the screening, like Tellez, receive ongoing dental care through the program.

Christina Arnold, Be-Well Lake County diabetes program coordinator, said many who struggle to manage their diabetes may overlook the role dental health plays in their treatment.

“Anytime there’s an active infection or inflammation in the body, it increases blood sugar levels, which makes it harder to control blood sugars,” Arnold said. “If a doctor is struggling to figure out why a medication isn’t helping, this could be why,” she said. “It’s very common that we see that patients haven’t been to the dentist and they have active infections.”

During the screening, some patients said they hadn’t been to a dentist because they were unsure of what to expect, Arnold said.

“Three or four patients said, ‘I haven’t gone to the dentist because I was scared,” Arnold said. “They said, ‘I came here because I knew there would be other people like me and felt like I did.’”

Tellez said his involvement with the Be Well program and additional dental care are helping him to reach his health goals.

When Tellez feels well, he can be spotted practicing his favorite hobbies, such as fishing or taking photos at family functions.

“I’m watching what I eat,” Tellez said. “I’d like to lose a little more weight and get off some of the medicine I take.

“My brother used to tell me, ‘Take care of your teeth because nobody else will.’ I have to be careful because of what can happen if I don’t take care of my oral health.”

For more information about the program, call 847-377-8604 or visit


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