If left untreated, this oral health problem can damage more than your gums. Gum disease has been linked to an increased risk of heart disease, stroke and other health problems.
Gum disease, also known as periodontal disease, is a chronic infection that can result in a number of health problems, from mild inflammation to severe gum damage to tooth loss, if left untreated. In addition, gum disease can affect your overall health, and has been linked to an increased risk of heart disease and stroke.
Gum disease develops in the space between your gum line and your teeth. It causes tissue inflammation and damage that can eventually cause your gums to recede. The severity of gum disease is determined by the depth of the excess space, or so-called “pockets,” that form as your gum tissue recedes.
The National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research estimates that 80 percent of adults in the United States have some degree of gum disease.
Types of Gum Disease
Gum disease is classified as either gingivitis or periodontitis. Gingivitis is the first stage of gum disease and is reversible with treatment. But it can also develop into the more serious oral health problem, periodontitis.
Gingivitis results in swollen, irritated gums that bleed easily. Good oral health habits, including daily flossing and brushing, as well as getting regular professional teeth cleanings can prevent and help to reverse this disease, which typically doesn’t result in the loss of gum tissue or teeth.
Periodontitis occurs as a result of untreated gingivitis. In periodontitis, the gums significantly recede from the teeth, leading to the formation of infected pockets. As your body’s immune system struggles to fight off these infection, tissues and bones may start to break down. Without proper treatment, the gums, connective tissue, and jaw bones that support your teeth may all deteriorate and begin to compromise your overall oral health. Eventually, the teeth will loosen and either fall out or have to be removed.
Signs of Gum Disease
Your oral health is critical to your overall health. If you notice any of the following symptoms, seek care from a dentist who is knowledgeable about treating gum disease:
- A sour taste in your mouth or persistently bad breath
- A change in how your partial dentures fit
- A change in how your teeth fit together when you bite down
- Bleeding gums
- Gum tissue that pulls away from your teeth
- Loose teeth or increasing spaces between your teeth
- Pain when chewing
- Unusually sensitive teeth
- Swollen and tender gums
Causes of Gum Disease
In addition to poor oral health habits, other factors associated with gum disease include:
- Smoking and chewing tobacco — tobacco products irritate the gums and make gum disease more difficult to treat.
- Systemic diseases that affect the immune system, such as cancer, diabetes, and HIV/AIDS
- Taking certain medications, including some blood pressure drugs, antidepressants, steroids, and oral contraceptives, that can cause dry mouth. The lack of saliva in your mouth makes you more susceptible to gum disease since one of its main functions is to help wash away food particles and bacteria.
- Crooked teeth
- Dental bridges that don’t fit properly
- Old and defective fillings
- Hormonal fluctuations, particularly those that occur during pregnancy
- Genetic differences may make some people more susceptible to gum disease
- Stress, which can reduce your body’s defenses when it comes to fighting off any infection, including gum infections
Consequences of Untreated Gum Disease
Untreated gum disease has been associated with an increased risk for heart disease and stroke, and for women, an increased chance of delivering a baby with a low birth weight. Gum disease has also been linked to trouble controlling blood sugar among diabetics.
Gum Disease Treatment Options
Gum disease can be treated in several ways, depending on whether you have gingivitis or periodontitis. The primary goal is to manage the chronic infection that leads to gum damage. Treatment options include:
- Regular professional deep cleanings
- Medications that are either taken orally or are inserted directly into infected tissue pockets
- Surgery, in more severe cases of gum disease. One type, called flap surgery, involves pulling up the gum tissue in order to remove tartar and then stitching the tissue back in place for a tight fit around the teeth. Tissue grafts can also be used to replace severely damaged bone or gum. In bone grafting, for instance, a small piece of mesh-like material is placed between the bone and gum tissue, enabling the supportive tissue and bone to regenerate.
While it’s good to know there are treatments, it’s better to avoid gum disease in the first place, by brushing and flossing at least twice a day, eating a balanced diet, and visiting your dentist regularly for exams and cleanings.