Gum disease, also known as periodontal disease, is an infection of the gums surrounding your teeth. Gum disease is one of the top reasons for tooth loss in adults, and because it is virtually pain-free, many patients do not know they have the disease. During each regular checkup, your dentist will check for signs of periodontal disease by measuring the space between your teeth and gums.
What causes gum disease?
Gum disease is caused by a buildup of plaque (a sticky form of bacteria that forms on the teeth). If the plaque is not removed (by flossing, brushing, and regular dental checkups), it will continue to build up and create toxins that can damage the gums. Periodontal disease forms just below the gum line and creates small pockets that separate the gums from the teeth. Periodontal disease has two stages: gingivitis and periodontitis.
- Gingivitis — This is the early stage of gum disease, when the gums become red and swollen, and bleed easily. At this stage, the disease is treatable and can usually be eliminated by daily brushing and flossing.
- Periodontitis — If left untreated, gingivitis will advance into periodontitis, and the gums and bone that support the teeth will become seriously and irreversibly damaged. Gums infected with periodontitis can cause teeth to become loose, fall out, or be removed by a dentist.
Certain factors can increase a patient's risk of developing periodontal disease, including:
- Smoking or using chewing tobacco
- Certain types of medication such as steroids, anti-epilepsy drugs, cancer therapy drugs, calcium channel blockers, and oral contraceptives
- Bridges that no longer fit properly
- Crooked teeth
- Old fillings
While it is possible to have periodontal disease and not know it, some symptoms can include:
- Gums that bleed easily
- Red, swollen, tender gums
- Gums that have pulled away from the teeth
- Persistent bad breath or bad taste
- Pus between your teeth and gums
- Permanent teeth that are loose or separating
- Any change in the way your teeth fit together when you bite
- Any change in the fit of partial dentures
Treating Gum Disease
Treatments for gum disease can vary depending on the severity of each individual case. Typical treatments include:
- Non-surgical treatments such as at-home periodontal trays, and scaling and root planing (deep cleaning)
- Periodontal surgery and laser gum surgery
- Dental implants
Preventing Gum Disease
Regular dental checkups and periodontal examinations are important for maintaining your health and the health of your smile. You don't have to lose teeth to periodontal disease, and by practicing good oral hygiene at home, you can significantly reduce your chances of ever getting gum disease. Remember to brush regularly, clean between your teeth, eat a balanced diet, and schedule regular dental visits to help keep your smile healthy.
Gum Disease and Overall Health
Advanced, untreated gum disease degrades the tissues and bone structures surrounding the teeth and very often causes tooth loss. But the effects of gum disease can be felt well beyond the mouth and jaw. Research links gum disease to a variety of systemic conditions that affect overall health, including heart disease, diabetes and osteoporosis. We refer to this as the mouth-body connection.
In some cases gum disease can cause problems in other parts of the body, while in other instances conditions seemingly unrelated to the mouth can contribute to the development or advancement of gum disease.
It's important to let us and your general dentist know about any illnesses or conditions you are experiencing. An awareness of difficulties outside your mouth can help us treat certain problems related to your teeth and gums. In turn, we may be able to identify diseases affecting other areas of your body based on the symptoms we observe inside your mouth. Following is a list of conditions known to be related to gum disease.
If you have diabetes, it is especially important to take good care of your teeth and gums, as gum disease and diabetes can affect each other adversely. Diabetes can disrupt the immune system's ability to fight infection, making diabetics more susceptible to gum disease, which is essentially an infection of the tissue surrounding the teeth. And advanced gum disease can boost the level of blood sugar in the body, further complicating diabetes.
Heart Disease and Stroke
The American Academy of Periodontology cites research indicating that people with gum disease are nearly twice as likely to suffer from coronary artery (heart) disease as those without gum disease. Currently the actual link between the two diseases is not entirely clear, though some scientists believe that bacteria from the mouth travels through the blood stream to affect the arteries in the heart. Other research points to a link between gum disease and stroke, with one study finding higher instances of oral infection in a group of stroke survivors than in a control group.
In a normal body, bone growth slows over time, and due to age and other circumstances, bone density decreases. But in people with osteoporosis, bones are weakened to the point that they are fragile enough to fracture easily and frequently. Although we most commonly hear of hip or back fractures, all bones are affected, including the jaw. A jaw with decreased bone density can't support the teeth as well as a healthy jaw, which leaves those suffering from both gum disease and osteoporosis with a heightened risk of tooth loss. If you think you might be at risk for osteoporosis, talk to your doctor about having a bone density test. If this condition is identified early enough, treatment can help.
Research indicates that bacteria from the mouth — including those present in someone suffering from gum disease — can be inhaled down into the lungs, leading to respiratory diseases such as pneumonia. Smoking is a primary cause of respiratory diseases and it is also a risk factor in gum disease. Quitting smoking can improve your health in myriad ways. Please get in touch with us or your general dentist if you are looking for help with kicking the habit.
During pregnancy and other phases of increased hormone levels (puberty, menstrual cycle, menopause) the risk of oral health problems is higher than normal, due to increased gum sensitivity. Some studies have linked gum disease to low birth weight and premature labor. If you are planning to become pregnant, be sure to assess your oral health first and begin treatment if you have gingivitis or periodontitis.