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Oral Health Basics: What Is Gum Disease?

It’s important that you keep your gums healthy because they help support your teeth and act as an important barrier against bacteria.

Your gums are naturally pink and should not bleed after regular brushing, though you may see some temporary irritation after flossing for the first time in a while. Red and bleeding gums could be a sign that you’re beginning to enter the early stages gum disease.

As the early signs of gum disease don’t cause chronic pain, many individuals ignore the symptoms until it is too late. According to CDC data, close to half of adults 30 and over have some form of untreated periodontal disease — a number that only increases with age. Understanding the basics of periodontal disease can help you reverse the effects before the consequences become permanent.

What Is Gum Disease?
Essentially, gum disease occurs when bacteria has entered and inflamed the gum tissue surrounding the teeth, causing gums to appear red or swollen and frequently bleed after brushing.

Gingivitis, the early form of gum disease, is reversible and easy to treat with a good dental care routine, but gum disease progresses quickly when it goes untreated. When gingivitis is ignored, the condition develops into a more severe form of gum disease called periodontitis. Now, not only is the gum tissue inflamed and bleeding, but it begins to pull away from the teeth, creating large pockets that allow bacteria to collect and grow. Once gingivitis develops into periodontitis, strengthening your oral hygiene can’t reverse the effects of the disease.

Brushing and flossing does not get into the pockets that have developed and continued inflammation and even infection is likely to happen. At this stage gum tissue can be permanently lost, teeth can begin to loosen and can even fall out in later stages. As gum tissue is unlikely to grow back, surgery may be necessary to slow the progression of the disease and provide some support to remaining teeth.

What Happens When You Have Gum Disease?
Periodontitis can lead to tooth decay, increase your chances of infection, impact your ability to chew properly, cause significant bad breath and even have an effect on your overall health.

Gum disease has links to other serious health conditions. New research has found associations between periodontal disease and cardiovascular disease. 

Both diseases share many risk factors, and in a study published by the American Dental Association, participants with tooth loss and cardiovascular disease seemed to have an increased chance of cardiovascular death for every 5 additional teeth lost. And, in addition to these findings, research has also indicated that the bacteria in your mouth can spread to other parts of your body. Inflammation in other areas of the body — especially those infections which contribute to pneumonia and bronchitis and impact lung function — may be able to be linked backed to bacteria that originated in the oral cavity.

Being proactive about your oral health can help control the effects of gum disease or prevent it from ever developing in the first place.

What Are the Signs of Gum Disease?
The CDC reports of a number of warning signs that can help you or someone you love recognize that they may have periodontal disease. Individuals with periodontal disease can experience any combination of the following signs:

  • Changes in how teeth come together when biting
  • Gum tissue that has pulled away from teeth
  • Increased tooth sensitivity
  • Loose teeth
  • Pain with chewing
  • Bleeding or tender gums
  • Swollen and red gum tissue
  • Persistent bad breath or lingering bad taste
  • Changes in how partial dentures fit

While inflamed and bleeding gums may simply indicate a need to floss more frequently, it can also be a sign of gingivitis, and is a symptom that will persist in periodontal gum disease as the gums begin to pull away from the teeth. This is most noticeable in rear teeth and areas that are more difficult to brush.

If you believe you may be experiencing one or more of the signs of gum disease listed above, schedule an appointment with your dentist immediately. In more severe cases, you may need to schedule a visit to an oral surgeon to correct and treat the effects of periodontitis.

You Can Prevent and Control Gum Disease.
It is possible to control the progression of diagnosed gum disease or to avoid developing gum disease altogether with proper oral hygiene:

  • Brush with a fluoride toothpaste and soft-bristled brush at least twice a day
  • Floss daily
  • Use an antimicrobial mouthwash
  • Clean dental appliances — such as a braces, dentures or partials — thoroughly every day as bacteria accumulates on and around these items
  • Visit the dentist at a minimum of once a year for an exam and cleaning, and speak to your dentist about making sure you have a dental care plan that fits your specific oral health needs.

If warning signs of gum disease develop, speak with your dentist about scheduling more frequent cleanings and checkups. Instead of a regular cleaning, your dentist may recommend scalings to clean beneath the gum line and access bacteria in the pockets between the teeth and gums. Measurements of developing pockets may be taken to determine the stage of periodontitis and to note progression of gum disease or control of the disease with proper oral hygiene and regular dental care. You may also be prescribed oral medications or given special medication that is applied under the gum. Corrective surgery is sometimes necessary, but is typically a last resort.

Good oral hygiene can help prevent gum disease. Speak to your regular dentist to learn more about proper brushing and flossing techniques. If you have signs of gum disease, developing these good oral care habits are critical in reducing the bacteria in your mouth and helping gum tissue return to a healthy state.