Gum Disease

Periodontal disease, or gum disease, is an infection of the gums and bone that surround the teeth. Because gum disease is often painless, you may not even know you have it. Many adults have some form of gum disease, and it can range from swollen gums in mild cases to loose teeth in more severe cases.

There are two forms of gum disease: gingivitis and periodontitis. In gingivitis, the mild form of gum disease, the gums can become red, swollen and may bleed. In periodontitis, the more severe form of gum disease, the gums can pull away from the teeth, the bones and gums that support the teeth can become damaged, and teeth may loosen and even fall out.

Periodontitis may affect more than just the health of your mouth. Research has shown that people with periodontitis may be more likely to develop other health problems, including heart disease and difficulty controlling blood sugar. Pregnant women with periodontitis may be more likely to give birth to small or premature babies.

Causes and risk factors for gum disease

Bacteria (germs) in the mouth form a sticky layer on the teeth called plaque. Tooth brushing and flossing can help remove plaque. When plaque is not removed, it can harden and become tartar, also called calculus. Tartar can spread below the gum line and can’t be removed by tooth brushing. Only a professional dental cleaning can remove tartar. Plaque and tartar irritate the gums and can cause them to become swollen, tender, and infected.

Risk factors for gum disease

  • Smoking and tobacco
  • Diabetes
  • Poor oral hygiene
  • Older age
  • Heredity
  • Diseases that affect the immune system
  • Crooked teeth
  • Defective fillings or poorly fitting dental appliances (dentures, bridges, crowns)
  • Medications that cause dry mouth
  • Stress
  • Pregnancy and hormonal changes in women

Signs and symptoms of gum disease

  • Red or swollen gums
  • Tender or bleeding gums
  • Bad breath or bad taste in the mouth
  • Gums that have pulled away from the teeth
  • Sensitive teeth
  • Loose or separating teeth

Prevention and treatment of gum disease

  • Good oral care. Brushing twice a day, flossing daily and rinsing with an antiseptic mouthwash daily can help remove the plaque that causes gum disease.
  • Don’t smoke. Quitting smoking can reduce the risk for gum disease. Talk to a doctor, call 311 or visit nycquits for help.
  • Keep diabetes under control. If you have diabetes, speak to your doctor or dentist about minimizing your risk for gum disease.
  • Visit the dentist. Visiting the dentist regularly is important for removing plaque and tartar that can build up, even with careful brushing and flossing.

Other Resources

  • American Dental Association: videos and information about gum disease.
  • Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: information, podcasts and educational materials about periodontal disease.
  • Journal of the American Dental Association: article on preventing periodontal disease (causes, prevention strategies and warning signs).
  • American Academy of Periodontology: Information on gum disease from the professional organization for periodontists.

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