It’s hard to put an exact figure on how many adults in the United States have gum disease, but a good estimate puts it at over fifty percent. In one study, researchers found that 67% of their subjects had tartar under their gums. (More on that soon.) What is gum disease? How can you tell if you have gingivitis? What does it take to treat it?
WHAT IS GUM DISEASE?
Gum disease does not describe one specific condition. Rather, the term refers to a variety of problems that compromise the health of the gum tissue and possibly even the bone socket and ligaments that hold your teeth in place. These conditions generally fall under the same umbrella because they are almost always stages in a progressive disease process.
With a few exceptions, gum disease usually starts off as a pretty mild issue that worsens over time. At the severe, late stage of that process is advanced periodontal disease. Patients suffering with periodontal disease may experience tooth loss, infections, and other permanent damage to their oral health.
The good news is most people have plenty of opportunity to stop this process early enough to avoid irreversible damage. Gum disease generally starts off as gingivitis, which is a mild to moderate inflammation in the gums. By keeping up with regular dental checks and maintaining a great home care routine, gingivitis can usually be reversed with no long-term effects.
We will get into more detail on periodontal disease later. For now, let’s talk gingivitis!
SIGNS AND SYMPTOMS OF GINGIVITIS
SORE, BLEEDING GUMS
Gums just bleed sometimes, right? Everybody’s gums bleed, it’s not that big a deal, right? WRONG! Bleeding easily is the main way we diagnose gingivitis. If your gums feel sore or tender, and bleed easily when you brush or floss, it’s a good indication that your gums are not healthy.
However, lack of bleeding does not always indicate good gum health. For example, smoking causes the tiny blood vessels in the gums to restrict. Many smokers have severe gum disease but minimal bleeding. In fact, some people notice their gums start to bleed after they quit smoking and falsely assume quitting gave them gingivitis!
Likewise, there are certain other conditions like pregnancy that might cause otherwise healthy gums to bleed. In general, though, think of your gums as if it were skin on some other part of your body; if your scalp started bleeding every time you brushed your hair, you’d probably freak out! That being said, a little occasional bleeding that goes away in a day or two is likely not a big deal.
Gingivitis frequently comes with bad breath. Some of this has to do with too much bacteria growing in your mouth. Like we mentioned in a previous blog, bacteria digest food and create waste. That waste, coupled with particles of food left to rot and break down between your teeth, can really be smelly!
SWOLLEN, RED, PUFFY GUMS
Gingivitis will likely make your gums appear swollen, puffy, and red or dark in color. They may also get a glassy, stretched texture. Healthy gums should be firm, tight to the teeth, and have a texture with tiny dimples like the skin of an orange. Again, there are some medical conditions and medications that can cause enlarged gums that aren’t truly caused by gingivitis, but generally you will be made aware of this side effect before you start those medications.
WHAT CAUSES GINGIVITIS?
As we mentioned above, gingivitis has a lot to do with an overgrowth of bacteria. If bacterial colonies are allowed to build up on the surface of your teeth, they will irritate your gums. Bacteria tend to grow best in areas that they’re not disrupted. That means the spaces between your teeth and the crevice where your gums meet your teeth are both prime real estate for bacteria!
But it’s not just the bacteria that cause gingivitis. As bacteria build up, they produce irritating substances that trigger your immune system to flood the gums with fluid to try and bring white blood cells to the area. However, as the white blood cells don’t have great access to those bacteria, they end up damaging your skin cells instead.
This increased fluid and immune response is called inflammation, and that’s really what gingivitis is. Some people’s bodies respond really strongly to bacteria on their teeth, and others don’t react as much. Whether or not you develop gingivitis has a lot to do with what kinds of bacteria you grow and how your body reacts to those bacteria.
HOW TO GET YOUR GUMS HEALTHY
Regardless of whether you’re prone to gingivitis or not, treatment for gingivitis is generally the same. And it’s pretty simple! Keeping your teeth as clean as possible will break down the bacterial colonies and give your immune system a chance to calm down. That means effective brushing twice daily, flossing once per day, and maybe a little mouthwash or other antimicrobial product if your dental team thinks it would benefit you.
Excellent brushing and flossing also massages the gum tissue. This stimulates circulation and also inspires the gum cells to get tougher and more resistant to bacteria. Be sure to check in with your dental hygienist and ask how you can improve your gum health. And take a look our previous post about good home care! Call us to schedule your dental health screening and get your gums on the right track!