If your gums are red, swollen or bleed easily when brushing or flossing, you may have an early form of gum disease, known as gingivitis. If gingivitis is left untreated, it may lead to periodontitis, an acute stage of gum disease that leads to bone and tissue loss that surround and support the teeth and ultimately lead to the loss of teeth. Periodontitis is linked with other health problems too.
Gum disease is a fairly common condition and most people suffer from at least some form of the disease. It usually occurs between the ages of 20 – 40 and while teens rarely develop periodontitis, they might develop gingivitis.
Gum disease can have dire consequences if left untreated. If you’ve been told you’ve gum disease, it’s important you start taking care of your teeth and gums to stop or reverse the damage done.
First things first, what causes gum disease?
Our mouth houses millions of bacteria. These bacteria, along with mucus and other particles form a sticky white layer on the teeth, called plaque. Plaque can easily be removed by brushing and flossing and by practicing good oral hygiene. However, if the plaque isn’t removed properly, it hardens and becomes tartar that can’t be cleaned with brushing. Only a dentist can clean the tartar using special dental tools and cleaning procedures.
If tartar and plaque are left on the teeth and not removed, the bacteria causes the gums to become inflamed. The gums become red, swollen and bleed easily. This condition is called gingivitis, which is the mildest form of gum disease. Gingivitis doesn’t lead to bone and tissue loss and can easily be reversed by cleaning or scaling and by brushing and flossing regularly.
However, if gingivitis is ignored and not treated, it leads to periodontitis, an acute stage of gum disease. In periodontitis, gums start receding and create pockets around the teeth that become infected. Plaque starts to grow below the gum line. With the body’s immune system fighting the infection as well as the bacterial toxins, the bone and the connective tissue that hold the teeth in place start to break down. If it’s left untreated, the bone, tissue and gums that support the teeth become destroyed causing the teeth to come loose and eventually removed.
Who are at risk of gum disease?
You are at an increased chance of gum disease if you:
- Smoke: Do you need another reason to stop smoking? Well, it’s a major risk factor for the development of gum disease. If you want to keep your teeth, kick the habit now.
- Have hormonal changes: Hormonal changes in women make the gums more sensitive, which increases the chances of developing gingivitis. You’ll often find pregnant women complaining about bleeding and swollen gums.
- Use certain medications: Some medications reduce the production of saliva in the mouth. Saliva is like a cleansing agent in the mouth and washes bacteria away. Without enough saliva, the mouth is vulnerable to infections including gum disease.
- Have diabetes: Diabetes can increase the chances of infections including gum disease.
Do I have gum disease?
How do you know if you have gum disease? Here are some symptoms to look out for:
- Bad breath that won’t go away
- Red or swollen gums
- Receding gums
- Bleeding gums
- Pain while chewing
- Sensitive teeth
- Loose teeth
If you have any of these above symptoms, it’s highly recommended that you visit a dentist and have your mouth examined. Your dentist will take your history and look at the risk factors that might contribute to gum disease, examine your gums and check for any inflammation, and also do a test to measure the depth of any pockets.
How is gum disease treated?
The treatment depends on the severity and extent of the disease. However, the main goal is to control the infection. The dentist usually recommends a deep cleaning method such as scaling and root planing to remove the buildup of tartar and bacteria.
In scaling, the dentist scrapes off plaque and tartar from above and below the gum line while root planing gets rid of rough spots on the tooth root where the bacteria gather. The goal is to remove the bacteria that contribute to this disease. When bacteria is removed, the disease is usually reversed. The treatment also requires that the patient practice good oral hygiene at home and make some lifestyle changes like quitting smoking.
However, if the disease has progressed to an advanced stage, the dentist might recommend medications for controlling infection, removing bacteria and reducing the size of pockets. Sometimes medications reduce the need for surgery. These medications include antimicrobial mouthwashes, oral antibiotics, antibiotic gels, antibiotic microspheres, antiseptic chips and enzyme suppressants. Some of these are used after root planing and scaling and are put in the pockets to reduce their size.
If medications and deep cleaning doesn’t work, however, the dentist might recommend surgery as the only treatment option. There are basically two surgical treatments: flap surgery and bone and tissue grafting.
In flap surgery, the dentist will lift back the gums and remove tartar. The gums are sutured back in place so that the tissue fits snugly around the tooth. As the gums heal after surgery, they fit more tightly around the tooth.
In bone and tissue grafting, the dentist will try to regenerate any bone or tissue lost to the disease. Bone grafting involves placing a natural or synthetic bone in the area of bone loss to promote healthy bone growth. For regeneration of the tissue, the dentist might insert a mesh like material between the bone and the gum tissue, preventing the gum tissue from growing into the area where the bone used to be and also regenerating the growth of bone and connective tissue. Proteins might be used in this procedure as growth factors and to promote healthy growth. In tissue graft, a synthetic or tissue from another part of your mouth is taken to cover the exposed tooth roots.
How to prevent gum disease
An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. And when it comes to gum disease and the consequences of it, it can’t be truer. The good news is, preventing gum disease is quite simple.
- Practice good oral hygiene. Brush your teeth twice daily, floss and use a mouth rinse.
- Visit the dentist regularly for routine checkups and deep cleaning.
- Don’t smoke.
Sounds too simple, right? Well, it’s true. These three basic things can save you from all the trouble that gum disease brings. Above all, it saves your teeth.