Gum disease is one of the most pervasive yet undiscussed issues in American health, with a majority of American adults dealing with some version of it annually. It’s also one of the most misunderstood. Due to the variety of symptoms and degrees of severity and the wide variety of possible treatments, it’s difficult to get a handle on what gum disease is and where it comes from. So what is gum disease and how does gum disease develop? Let’s take a look.
What is Gum Disease?
Gum disease exists on a spectrum. It generally starts as gum inflammation, also known as gingivitis. Gingivitis is caused by the buildup of bacteria in the sticky plaque layer of the teeth and under the gums. This causes irritation as the plaque builds up and subsequently causes the gums to become swollen and tender and it may cause bleeding of the gums. Bleeding may become especially noticeable during brushing and flossing. It’s important to note that while gingivitis causes irritation, swelling, and bleeding, it has yet to progress to the point that tooth decay or worse ensues and the teeth, gums, or jaws are permanently affected.
Gingivitis isn’t especially serious and can generally be treated with more diligent brushing and flossing, the use of an appropriate mouthwash, and a dental exam and cleaning. More serious issues arise when gingivitis goes untreated and that neglect leads the disease to develop further. It can progress and become periodontitis. Also known as gum disease, periodontitis can result in serious damage to the teeth, gums, and jawbone including tooth decay and tooth loss.
So what causes periodontitis to progress to this point? Well, as it turns out a great many other conditions can contribute to the development of periodontitis. These include:
- Hormonal changes, such as those that occur during pregnancy, menopause, or some hormonal treatments.
- Some illnesses can cause periodontitis, including cancer, HIV/AIDs, diabetes, and other illnesses that affect blood flow, saliva production, or the immune system.
- Some medications can affect the production of saliva, which in turn can lead to gum disease. Your doctor can give you more information about these.
- The lack of regular brushing and flossing habits can cause gum disease via neglect. This is likely the most common cause in the US.
- Alcohol and tobacco use can contribute to or even cause gum disease.
- Family history can play a role, as some families have a history of gum disease and seem to be more prone to it.
Signs of gum disease include the following. If you experience any of these symptoms persistently, please contact your dentist.
- Gums that bleed during and after tooth brushing
- Red, swollen, or tender gums
- Recurring or persistent bad breath, or a bad taste in the mouth
- Receding or shrinking gums
- Formation of deep pockets between teeth and gums; gums pulling away from teeth
- Loose or shifting teeth
- Changes in the way teeth fit together upon biting down, or in the fit of partial dentures or other dental prosthetics
Treating Gum Disease
Gum disease can be treated, but treatment is more effective if it begins before the gum disease has progressed too far. Generally, treatment will start with a full exam and cleaning, so that your dentist can assess the extent of the damage and the extent of tooth decay if any, and suggest a course of treatment. These treatments may include more frequent cleanings, antibiotic use, or surgical treatment. Your dentist may also suggest lifestyle changes including a better diet, eliminating tobacco or alcohol, or better brushing and flossing habits.
Gum disease can be a problem, but by understanding how it develops and what causes it you can go a long way towards avoiding it. Regular brushing and flossing combined with healthy habits and regular exams and cleanings are your best best for preventing gum disease.