What is gum disease?

Gum disease (also called periodontal disease) is an infection of the tissues surrounding and supporting the teeth. It is a major cause of tooth loss in adults. Basically the bone supporting the roots of the teeth is destroyed and the tooth or teeth get loose over time. Because gum disease is usually painless, however, you may not know you have it. For this reason periodontal disease is very dangerous because it often goes undetected by the patient and untreated until a severe problem develops. That’s why routine cleanings and examination by your dentist are so important for early detection and treatment of problems before they get severe.

Gum disease is caused by plaque, a sticky film of bacteria that constantly forms on the teeth. These bacteria create toxins that can damage the gums and acids that attack the enamel of the teeth and cause “cavities” or “tooth decay”. Healthy gums are nice and coral pink, do not bleed at all when brushed or flossed. In the early stages of gum disease, called “gingivitis”, the gums can become red, swollen, and bleed easily. The good news is at this stage the disease is totally reversible and can usually be eliminated by effective oral hygiene (at least twice daily brushing and flossing). The bad news is, left untreated; the disease will progress to some amount of bone loss. In the more advanced stages of gum disease, called “periodontitis”, the gums and the bone that support the teeth can become seriously damaged. The teeth become loose over time, often without the patient’s awareness until the problem is severe. Because periodontitis is a slow chronic problem there is no acute pain episode to alert the patient to the problem until severe destruction has already occurred. The teeth become loose, can fall out, or often ultimately have to be removed by a dentist. Bone loss “periodontitis” around teeth is irreversible and can only be corrected with some type of surgery.

What are the signs of gum disease/periodontitis? If you notice any of the following signs of gum disease, see your dentist immediately:

  • Gums that bleed when you brush your teeth
  • Red, swollen, or tender gums
  • Gums that have pulled away from the teeth
  • Bad breath that doesn’t go away
  • Pus between your teeth and gums
  • Loose teeth to any degree
  • A change in the way your teeth fit together when you bite
  • A change in the fit of removable partial dentures
  • Normal healthy gums do not bleed and the teeth are firmly anchored in place by the healthy supporting bone. Unremoved, plaque hardens into calculus (tartar). As plaque and calculus continue to build up, the gums begin to recede (pull away) from the teeth, and “pockets” form between the teeth and gums. This creates an environment/niche for more plaque and impacted food and debris to increase the problem.

Flossing

Cleaning between your teeth with floss or inter-dental cleaners removes bacteria and food particles from between the teeth, where a toothbrush can’t reach. Daily brushing and flossing can often reverse early gum disease. If you use interdental cleaners, ask your dentist how to use them properly, to avoid injuring your gums. Eat a well balanced diet. Choose a variety of foods from the basic food groups, such as breads, cereals and other grain products; fruits; vegetables; meats, poultry and fish; and dairy products such as milk, cheese and yogurt. Limit between-meal snacks. Visit your dentist regularly. It is important to have regularly scheduled dental exams and professional cleanings to help prevent and manage periodontal disease.