What is Gum Disease?
The medical term for gum disease is periodontitis, which literally means "inflammation around the tooth." Periodontal disease infects the gum tissue and bone structure that supports your teeth. It’s a widespread problem in the U.S. and the chief cause of tooth loss in adults. Teeth become loose as your gums recede and gaps develop between your teeth and gums.
Eight in 10 adults have some form of gum disease, according to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), although the condition is considered largely preventable. The main cause of gum disease is poor oral hygiene.
Periodontitis starts as gingivitis, which means “inflammation of the gums”. Gingivitis occurs when your gums become infected by a build-up of plaque on your teeth that results in inflammation as your body tries to fight the bacterial onslaught.
Without treatment, gingivitis can progress to the more serious issues of periodontitis and advanced periodontitis.
Spread of infection from periodontal disease to other areas of the body has been linked to several other serious medical conditions, including:
- Lung infections.
- Heart disease.
What is Plaque?
Everyone has plaque in their mouth. It’s a sticky, soft biofilm that contains millions of bacteria – tiny, one-cell organisms that feed on their environment. Infection occurs when there’s an excessive build-up of plaque.
Not all bacteria are dangerous, and some that live in our bodies are beneficial. However, the germs in plaque turn sugars in the food you eat into acids. This can cause gum disease1 and tooth decay if the bacterial build-up is not removed by regular brushing and flossing.
In the absence of adequate oral hygiene, plaque can eventually harden into tartar. This calcified plaque (dental calculus) can only be removed by a dentist or dental hygienist using specialized equipment.
Effective brushing and flossing get difficult as tartar accumulates at the gum line. As the combination of tartar, plaque, and germs spreads, gum tissue can become infected, with the subsequent inflammation resulting in gingivitis.
Symptoms of Gum Disease
Gum disease may go unnoticed initially because plaque is colorless and transparent, and the early stages of the condition are often pain-free. The first sign of a problem is often bleeding gums. You may also notice that your gums – which should be pink and firm – have become reddened and soft.
Another symptom of gum disease is teeth appearing to be longer. This happens when your gums recede, exposing more tooth structure.
Other indications of gum disease include:
- Swollen gums.
- A change in how your upper and lower teeth come together.
- Tooth sensitivity to hot or cold foods and drinks.
- Loose teeth.
- Persistent bad breath (halitosis).
- Pus between the teeth and gums.
- Mouth sores.
How is Gum Disease Diagnosed?
The development and progression of gum disease can only be conclusively identified by a dentist. Gum disease diagnosis includes:
- Checking your teeth alignment.
- Measuring the depth of periodontal pockets (spaces between your teeth and gums).
- Assessing the condition of your jawbone.
According to the American Dental Association2 (ADA), regular dental exams are essential to detect early stages of gum disease and enable the most effective treatment.
An annual comprehensive periodontal evaluation (CPE) is advised by the AAP3 (American Academy of Periodontology) for all adults.
How is Gum Disease Treated?
If you have a mild case of gum disease, you may be able to resolve the problem by ensuring a good routine of oral hygiene, backed by regular dental exams and professional cleanings. In more serious cases, you’ll likely need non-surgical periodontal treatment. Advanced periodontitis may require surgery.
Non-Surgical Treatments for Gum Disease
Common non-surgical treatments for gum disease include scaling and root planing and medications to fight infection. Scaling and root planing to remove plaque and tartar entails going beneath the gum line, as opposed to standard cleaning of the surface of your teeth.
Scaling is carried out with metal scraping tools or ultrasonic technology, or a combination of the two. Root planing involves smoothing (planing) the root surface of teeth to eradicate colonies of bacteria and the toxins they produce.
As well as scaling and root planing treatment, your dentist may also prescribe anti-inflammatory drugs in tablet form or placed directly into the gums. A fluoride toothpaste containing a special antibacterial component may also be helpful.
Surgical Treatments for Gum Disease
If the bone and gum tissue supporting your teeth has been destroyed, several surgical options are available, including:
- Pocket reduction surgery.
- Guided tissue regeneration.
- Soft-tissue graft.
- Bone graft.
Can I Prevent Gum Disease?
Gum disease can develop with aging and through factors such as genetics or having to take certain medications. In many cases, though, lifestyle changes can help to keep your gums strong and healthy.
Regular brushing and flossing using the right techniques will go a long way toward preventing accumulations of plaque and tartar. You might want to consider switching to an electric toothbrush and antibacterial mouthwash.
Watching what you eat can also help to keep gum disease at bay. A poor diet can weaken your immune system, impairing your body’s ability to fight off the infection that causes gum disease. Obesity has also been linked with gum disease.
Foods that are good for your gums and teeth and overall health include:
- Dairy products.
- Crunchy vegetables.
- Leafy greens.
It’s also advisable to cut back on sugar- or starch-rich snacks and drinks. Smoking also raises the risk of gum disease and is the leading cause of periodontitis that resists treatment. Another risk factor for gum disease is teeth misalignment, which will make oral hygiene more difficult.
Although clenching or grinding your teeth won’t cause gum disease, it can make the condition worse.
Think You Might Have Gum Disease?
If you suspect you may have the onset of gum disease, prompt diagnosis and treatment will give you the best chance of a successful outcome with antibiotics and minimally-invasive treatment such as scaling and root planing.
Your dentist will also be able to advise you on the best oral hygiene techniques to minimize the risk of future gum problems.