Gum disease, also known as periodontal disease, is a range of conditions that starts with simple inflammation of the gums and, if not properly treated, can advance to significant damage to the gums, bones, and tissues that support the tooth. Severe gum disease can require that teeth be removed.
The bacteria in our mouths, along with particles from the food we eat, form a sticky substance on our teeth called plaque. Some of that plaque is removed when we brush, floss, and use antibacterial rinses, but some of it hardens into calculus (or tartar) that can only be removed by a dental cleaning. If plaque and calculus are not removed, they can cause inflammation and gum disease.
Some people are at greater risk of developing gum disease than others. You face a higher risk of gum disease if:
- You are a smoker.
- You are pregnant, menopausal or experiencing other hormonal changes. Hormonal fluctuations make gums more sensitive.
- You have certain other illnesses, such as diabetes, cancer or HIV. Some diseases, or the common treatments for those diseases, can affect gum health.
- You are taking medications that cause dry mouth, including certain antibiotics, antihistamines, pain medications, diuretics, and anti-depressants. Saliva has a protective effect on the gums.
There are two main stages of gum disease. In the first and mildest stage, gingivitis, you will notice that your gums are red and swollen and bleed easily, such as when you floss. You may also notice persistent bad breath or painful chewing.
The second stage of gum disease is periodontitis, when gums pull away from the tooth, forming pockets that can become infected. As infection and plaque spread below the gum line, the body’s immune system fights the infection, which can break down the bone and connective tissues that keep the teeth in place. You may notice loose or sensitive teeth, receding gums, or teeth that appear longer.
There are many different types of treatment for gum disease, depending on how advanced your disease is. If you have mild gingivitis, it can be treated with thorough and regular cleaning and improved oral hygiene.
More advanced gum disease is often treated with scaling and root planing, which involves a thorough cleaning of the root surfaces to remove plaque and calculus from the gum pockets and remove bacteria from the root surface.
If this treatment does not work, or if the disease is more advanced, your dentist may recommend surgical treatment, such as gum grafts to cover roots or replace missing gum tissue; pocket reduction procedures to reduce the depth of the pockets around the gums and make the environment less hospitable for bacteria; and dental implants.
- Brush your teeth after every meal. Don’t forget your tongue—it’s a hiding place for bacteria.
- Floss at least once a day.
- Use an antibacterial rinse.
- See your dentist regularly.