When you think about an ideal smile, you probably primarily picture bright, white teeth. But in order for teeth to stay healthy, individuals must also have strong gum tissue. This tissue provides the support necessary to keep teeth aligned and protected from decay.
Unfortunately, gum disease is a common ailment that can affect patients of almost any age. Gum disease is most likely to appear in adult patients, rather than children or teens. In fact, almost 70 percent of adults have some form of gum disease.
In this article, we explain the basics of gum disease, including how it’s classified, diagnosed, and treated.
What Is Gum Disease?
The terms gum disease and periodontal disease can apply to most common conditions affecting the gums. There are two main types of gum disease: gingivitis and periodontitis.
Gingivitis consists of inflamed gum tissues. Patients may notice swelling, tenderness, and redness in the gums, but they most likely will not experience any significant pain. Gingivitis is the mildest form of periodontitis, and gingivitis can almost always be corrected through proper brushing, flossing, and nutritional balance.
Periodontitis usually develops after a patient’s gingivitis has gone untreated for a long period of time. Periodontitis comes in several forms, including chronic, systemic, and necrotizing. Chronic periodontitis is the most common form. Patients with chronic periodontitis may exhibit recessed gums and reduced tooth attachment over many years.
Other forms can develop more quickly. Systemic periodontitis occurs due to the presence of another health problem, such as heart failure, and may develop faster or slower depending on the patient’s overall condition. Necrotizing periodontitis is one of the fastest developing types of periodontitis and can immediately affect oral ligaments and bone. Necrotizing periodontitis usually affects patients with weakened immune systems.
Untreated gum disease can lead to tooth and bone-density loss, even in otherwise healthy patients, so it’s important to seek treatment immediately if you suspect that you suffer from any form of gum disease.
What Causes Gum Disease?
Gum disease can develop for a number of reasons. The most common factors that contribute to gum disease include:
- Diabetes and other conditions that affect how the body processes blood sugar
- Diseases that affect the immune system, like HIV/AIDs and cancer
- Family history of weak gums or gum disease
- Hormonal changes, such as those that occur during pregnancy and menopause
- Medications that have dry mouth as a side effect, including anticonvulsants, antihistamines, and prescription painkillers
- Poor oral hygiene, especially when combined with a diet that is high in simple sugars
Your dentist may ask about these factors when you have routine appointments to ensure that your risk factors are accounted for in your oral-health regimen.
What Are the Signs of Gum Disease?
When you go to the dentist for routine cleanings and exams, your gums will also be checked for gum disease. To assess whether gum disease is present and the extent of any existing condition, your dentist inserts a periodontal probe. This tool measures the depth of any gum pockets. Your dentist will also evaluate any signs of bone loss in your x-rays.
While gum disease can be diagnosed only by a dental professional, you may notice some warning signs at home, including:
- Bleeding gums, which can occur while eating, brushing, or flossing
- Changes in the fit of dentures, bridges, and other dental accessories
- Constant bad taste in the mouth
- Frequent discomfort caused by dry mouth, which may include difficulty swallowing
- Gum discoloration, including redness or darkened and brown areas
- Gum recession, which may cause the teeth to look longer
- Loose or shifting permanent teeth
- Mouth sores on the cheeks, the tongue, or the roof of the mouth
- Pain in the gums, teeth roots, or jaw
- Persistent bad breath
- Pockets between the teeth and gums that may fill with pus, also known as dental abscesses
If you observe these symptoms, seek dental care as soon as possible.
How Is Gum Disease Treated?
Your gum-disease treatment depends on your overall health and your current hygiene routine. If you have mild gingivitis, your dentist may recommend changing your oral-hygiene habits. For example, you may need a brush with softer bristles or additional flossing sessions.
In your dentist’s office, he or she may use scaling and other therapies to restore your gums. Traditional scaling consists of plaque removal at the gum line using a fine metal tool. If you have extensive periodontitis or an aversion to conventional scaling methods, your dentist may use an alternative treatment such as WaterLase therapy.
If you have noticed the symptoms of gum disease or are at high risk of developing gum disease, address your concerns with your dentist during your next appointment. Prompt treatment can minimize the damage and discomfort caused by gum conditions. For example, gingivitis treatment can prevent periodontal disease completely in most cases.