Gum disease, also called periodontal disease, is a widespread problem in the United States and can have a terrible impact on your health. It has been linked to serious health conditions, including heart disease.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention states that “47.2% of adults aged 30 years and older have some form of periodontal disease.” This is a huge number and, unfortunately, children are also susceptible.
However, gum disease can be treated and, even better, can be prevented.
What is Gum Disease?
Everyone has bacteria in their mouth. These bacteria grow and form plaque which, if not removed, eventually forms tartar. In the earliest stages of disease, certain types of bacteria cause the gums to become red and swollen and to bleed easily, especially when you brush your teeth. This stage is called gingivitis, which is inflammation in the gums, and no permanent damage has been done at this point. Regular cleanings by your dentist and good oral hygiene habits at home can reverse the process at this stage.
If gingivitis is left untreated, it can progress to periodontitis, which means that the gums surrounding the teeth have now become infected. In this stage, plaque grows beneath the gum line and causes the inner layer of the gum and bone to pull away from the teeth and form pockets. These pockets collect food particles and allow more plaque to grow and turn into tartar, then the surrounding tissue can become infected. As the loss of bone and gum tissue increases, teeth will begin to feel loose, and eventually result in tooth loss.
It is important to treat periodontal disease, even if your symptoms are mild. Researchers have found links between gum disease and serious health problems. The bacteria in the mouth enter the bloodstream and are usually harmless to people with a healthy immune system, but in some people with severe gum disease the different types of bacteria may be associated with stroke, heart disease, Alzheimer’s disease, and even makes diabetes worse.
How do you know if you have gum disease?
Periodontal disease may be painless, with few warning signs, and may affect only a few teeth, or all of them. If you do have symptoms, they may begin with gums that bleed when you brush your teeth and are tender, red or swollen. Bad breath or a bad taste in the mouth that doesn’t go away, painful chewing and sensitive teeth can also be warning signs. Eventually, you will see receding gums and growing pockets between teeth and gums. Late stage symptoms include loose teeth, changes in the way your teeth fit together when you bite down, changes in the way partial dentures fit, and even visible pus around the teeth and in the gums.
Who can get gum disease?
Anyone can develop gum disease, even children. While a buildup of plaque is the primary cause, there are other factors that can contribute to periodontal disease. Poor oral hygiene leads to a buildup of plaque, greatly increasing your risk of gum disease. However, crooked teeth which are difficult to properly clean, defective fillings and even stress may also increase your risk. Smoking or chewing tobacco makes it more difficult for gum tissue to repair itself, causing it to be more easily infected. Elements out of your control, such as a family history of periodontal disease, and certain illnesses, including cancer and diabetes may cause you to be more susceptible. Some medications increase your risk of gum disease because they negatively impact oral health by causing abnormal growth of gum tissue or by decreasing production of saliva, which diminishes its ability to protect your teeth and gums. Another interesting risk factor is hormonal changes caused by pregnancy, menopause, menstruation, and puberty. These hormonal changes make your gums more sensitive, allowing gingivitis to develop more easily.
Since children can be susceptible to gum disease, it is important to bring them in for regular dental cleanings and to teach good habits for oral health, such as the correct way to brush their teeth. As children reach puberty, the hormonal changes in their bodies increase their risk of developing gingivitis, especially if they have poor dental hygiene. Genetics and some diseases such as type 1 diabetes may also increase their susceptibility.
Can gum disease be prevented?
The great news about this particular disease is that there are many steps you can take to prevent it. The first step is to practice good dental hygiene, brushing twice and flossing once each day. Regular dental cleanings are important for oral health, and it is also a good idea to consult an orthodontist if you have crooked teeth that are difficult to keep clean, as that increases the risk of gum disease.
Children benefit by finding a dental home where they feel safe and comfortable getting regular checkups and cleanings. At Jungle Roots Children’s Dentistry and Orthodontics, we focus on education and prevention rather than treatment. Dr. Culp believes that a well-informed family is much more likely to reduce the risk of dental disease in children and spends a lot of time educating kids and their parents on proper dental hygiene, nutrition and habits that affect the health of teeth. Children who begin practicing healthy habits while they are still young are more likely to enjoy dental health and avoid gum disease for the rest of their lives.
What happens if I develop gingivitis or gum disease?
If you think you have gum disease, it is important to see your dentist as soon as possible. The earlier you begin treatment, the easier it is to cure. In the earliest stages of gingivitis, a professional cleaning followed by maintaining good oral hygiene habits may be enough to reverse the process. Antibacterial mouth rinses can also help by reducing plaque-causing bacteria.
If plaque or tartar need to be removed from under the gums, your dentist will perform a cleaning procedure called scaling. You will receive a local anesthetic and your dentist will scrape away all the plaque and tartar on your teeth. Root planing may accompany this treatment, to smooth rough spots on the tooth root, in order to remove bacteria and allow the gums to reattach to a clean surface.
If you suspect you have gum disease, it is vital to take immediate steps to reverse the process. Although a chronic disease for many people, it is one that can be cured with proper treatment and good dental hygiene. Better yet, take steps to prevent it from occurring with regular dental cleanings and by taking care of your teeth through good nutrition and oral hygiene habits. You can also help your children start their life off with excellent oral health by teaching them these habits and establishing a dental home where they can feel safe and comfortable being treated by an excellent dental team.
1. Division of Oral Health, National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion “Periodontal Disease.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 10 Mar. 2015, www.cdc.gov/oralhealth/periodontal_disease/index.htm.
2. American Academy of Periodontology. “Periodontal Disease Bacteria Linked to Alzheimer’s Disease.” Periodontal Disease Bacteria Linked to Alzheimer's Disease | Perio.org, 28 Jan. 2019, www.perio.org/consumer/alzheimers-and-periodontal-disease.
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