Understanding Gum Disease
Gum disease, periodontal disease, gingivitis, periodontitis … these similar-sounding
terms can be confusing. And while they are all related, they mean slightly different
Plaque, a sticky film made of bacteria and the acids it releases, attaches to teeth,
eats away at their enamel, and calcifies over the course of a few days—after which
it is known as tarter. Plaque and tarter inflame oral tissues and lead to the chronic
inflammation and infection of the gums known as gum—or periodontal—disease. It includes two main stages—gingivitis
A mild form of gum disease, gingivitis is often painless and may go undetected for
quite some time. The American Academy of Periodontology cites poor oral hygiene
as the common perpetrator for this condition and says that it is usually reversible
with professional treatment and good home care.
Gingivitis symptoms include gums that bleed easily, have sores, are shiny and/or
swollen, appear bright red or red-purple, and are tender to the touch but otherwise
When gingivitis goes untreated, it advances into periodontitis. At this time, the
infection spreads below the gum line and into the ligaments and bone supporting
the teeth, according to the U.S. National Library of Medicine. This type of gum disease
is the primary cause of adult tooth loss.
Periodontitis symptoms include bad breath; loose teeth; gums that appear bright
red or red purple, shiny, or swollen; gums that bleed easily; and tender gums that
are otherwise painless.
More common than you think, more than a poor hygiene
Few of us look at our mouths and think we have gum disease—especially those of us
with good brushing and flossing habits. However, statistics show that an estimated
75 percent of Americans reportedly have some form of it, according to the American Dental Hygienists’ Association.
Poor oral hygiene is a major risk factor for gum disease, but it is not the only
- Smoking—Studies have shown tobacco may be one of the most significant risk factors
- Female hormones—Increased risk for gingivitis has been linked to pregnancy, adolescence, menopause and oral contraceptives
- Disease—Diabetes, osteoporosis, autoimmune diseases, and others have been associated with periodontal disease
- Medications—Many prescription and over-the-counter drugs decrease saliva production. Since saliva protects the mouth from bacteria, this can lead to infection.
- Genetics—Some of us are simply more susceptible to gum disease than others. The University of Maryland Medical Center reports that up to 30 percent of the population may have some genetic susceptibility to periodontal disease.
While we may not be able to avoid plaque, we can do our best to prevent its buildup.
Brushing twice a day and flossing daily will help. But regular checkups and professional
cleanings every six months are especially important to preventing and controlling
gum disease. Your dentist and hygienist have tools that allow them to clean with
more precision. They will also look for subtle warning signs when examining your
Remember: Gingivitis often starts without pain. Should you notice any symptoms yourself
between checkups, make an appointment sooner. Catching gum disease in its earliest
stages, when it is most treatable, can prevent it from advancing to periodontitis
which can be painful and expensive to treat.