Periodontal Diseases

What You Need to Know About Gum Disease


According to the National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research, more than 4 in 10 U.S. adults age 30 and older have some form of periodontal disease, also known as gum disease. Along with tooth decay, gum disease is the biggest threat to dental health.

Types of gum disease and what they look like

Early stage gum disease is called gingivitis. The most common cause of gingivitis is poor oral health, which results in red and swollen gums. Other symptoms include bad breath and bleeding gums when brushing or flossing.

“There's a very tight band around the gums,” says Vera WL Tang, clinical assistant professor of periodontics and dental implants at New York University School of Dentistry. “When irritated, it swells and creates a gap between the tooth and gum. It can grow larger, allowing food and bacteria to become trapped and embedded around the tooth.

Preventing gingivitis depends on oral hygiene and keeping your teeth clean,” Dr. Tang said. Gingivitis is usually treatable if caught early. Treatment usually involves a thorough professional cleaning called a scaling. The Mayo Clinic notes that this condition usually goes away if you maintain good oral hygiene and get regular checkups.

If not treated properly, gingivitis can progress to periodontitis, a serious disease that causes the gums to pull away from the teeth and form periodontal pockets. Bacteria can collect in these pockets, leading to infection and potential bone loss. The tooth may become loose and need to be removed.

Certain factors, including smoking and diabetes, can increase the risk of gingivitis turning into periodontitis, Tang said. A family history of gum disease or early tooth loss may also play a role. If you have any of these risk factors, “you need to proactively address periodontal disease,” she says.

How to prevent serious gum disease

You want to catch gingivitis before it progresses into periodontitis, says Angelo Mariotti, DDS, dean of LSU Health New Orleans School of Dentistry. This requires a three-pronged approach:

1. Maintain good oral hygiene

To prevent gum disease, start by brushing twice a day and flossing regularly. “When brushing your teeth, use a soft-bristled toothbrush and be gentle,” Tang says. “Food tends to get lodged along the gum line between the gums and teeth. Angle the brush toward the gum line and use small circular motions to loosen debris. Be very gentle and sweep away from the gum line.

Don says you can scrub a little on the chewing surfaces of your teeth, but not along the gum line. If you brush your teeth too hard, you may overdo it, wear down your enamel, or cause your gums to recede.

Flossing helps remove the residue left behind after brushing. “Most periodontal disease occurs between the teeth rather than on the surface of the teeth,” says Peter Loomer, MD, chair of the Department of Periodontics and Implantology at the New York University School of Dentistry. “That's why flossing during this time is so important.” Your dentist can train you on proper flossing, Dr. Loomer says. “If you don’t have someone to teach you, you may not be able to do your job effectively.”

2. Reduce the risk of gum disease

“Discuss with your dentist how to control risk factors,” Dr. Mariotti says. If you smoke, the increased risk of gum disease is another reason to quit smoking. A healthy diet helps prevent gum disease and maintain overall health. “Hard and crunchy foods like carrots are great for cleaning tooth surfaces and removing debris,” Tang said. “Chewing sugar-free gum after a meal also increases the flow of saliva, which helps remove debris from around the teeth.” Minimize sugar intake and include plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables in your diet.

3. See the dentist regularly

Your dentist is your partner in maintaining good oral health and preventing gum disease. But Americans are more likely to skip routine dental care than other types of health care, according to an analysis of access to care. Mariotti says early-stage gum disease usually causes no harm or symptoms. Therefore, if you don't visit your dentist regularly, this condition may persist for years. Your dentist can monitor your gums over time to see how they change. Most people should visit their dentist twice a year for checkups and cleanings to remove tartar (calcified plaque) from their teeth. “You can't brush away plaque,” Loomer said. “It has to be removed with special instruments.”



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