Periodontal (Gum) Disease | National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research

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Periodontal (gum) disease is an infection of the tissue that holds the teeth in place. This is often caused by poor brushing and flossing habits, which cause plaque (a sticky coating of bacteria) to build up and harden on the teeth. It starts with swollen, red, and bleeding gums. If left untreated, it can spread to the bone around the gums, causing pain when chewing. In the worst-case scenario, the tooth may become loose or need to be extracted.

Periodontal disease prevention and treatment and NIDCR related research information.

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Plaque that is not removed daily can harden and form tartar, and tartar accumulation can lead to gum disease. Only a professional cleaning by a dentist or dental hygienist can remove tartar.

There are many risk factors for gum disease, but smoking is the most important. Smoking can also make gum disease treatments less effective. Other risk factors include hormonal changes in girls and women; certain diseases, such as diabetes or AIDS and their medications; and genetics.

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Symptoms of gum disease can affect various areas of the mouth.

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During a visit to the dentist, the dentist or dental hygienist will perform tests to diagnose periodontal disease:

Your dental professional may also refer you to a periodontist, a specialist in diagnosing and treating gum disease, who may offer other treatment options not offered by your dentist.

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The main goal of treatment is to control the infection. The number and type of treatments will vary, depending on the extent of gum disease. Any type of treatment requires the patient to maintain good daily care at home. The dentist may also recommend changing certain behaviors, such as quitting smoking, as a way to improve treatment outcomes.

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Useful tips

You can keep your gums and teeth healthy by:

  • Brush your teeth twice a day with fluoride toothpaste.
  • Floss regularly to remove plaque from between teeth. Alternatively, you can use a device such as an interdental brush, a wooden or plastic pick, or a “water flosser” recommended by dental professionals.
  • See your dentist regularly for checkups and professional cleanings.
  • Quit smoking.

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Other resources

  • periodontal disease
    Information from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention about the causes, warning signs, risk factors, and prevention and treatment of periodontal disease.
  • MedlinePlus: Gum Disease
    The NIH National Library of Medicine collects links to governmental, professional, and nonprofit/voluntary organizations providing information about periodontal disease and gingivitis.
  • How to quit smoking
    Information about smoking cessation from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
  • Dr. Rena D'Souza, Director of NIDCR, discusses the role of the gut in oral bone health.

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cover image

The cover picture is "Seniors and Oral Health" publication.

Seniors and Oral Health


Fact sheet on maintaining oral health throughout your life.

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