Gum disease is a common dental problem among adult Canadians. The good news is that with good dental care, and proper dental habits at home, gum disease can almost always be prevented. In its early stages, gum disease can be stopped and sometimes even reversed when it is treated.
Gum disease can begin at any age. It often develops slowly and without pain. By the time you are aware of it, you may be in danger of losing teeth.
Healthy gums and bone are what hold teeth in place. The place where gums are attached to the teeth – just below the edge of the gums – is called the point of attachment. Gum disease attacks this point of attachment and can begin when plaque, a white and sticky substance that contains bacteria (germs), forms on your teeth and gums. Plaque forms every day and if it is not removed by brushing and flossing, it hardens into tartar (also called calculus).
Tartar cannot be removed by brushing and flossing and can lead to chronic infection at the point of attachment. Tartar has a rough surface, so in addition to irritating gum tissue, it can also lead to more plaque accumulation.
Symptoms of Gum Disease
In its early stages, gum disease is called gingivitis. Gums may be red and bleed a little when you brush, but otherwise you may not notice anything. At this point, the gum disease can be reversed with good dental care. If not treated, the gingivitis will get worse and you might start to notice bleeding from your gums when eating harder foods, such as apples.
As gingivitis progresses, an infection develops at the point of attachment. The results of this infection are puffy gums, traces of blood on your toothbrush, or a change of colour in your gums. Even with these symptoms, you still might not experience any pain in your mouth.
If not treated, over time the infection can lead to the breakdown of your gum, bone, and other tissues that are holding your teeth in place. By then, you can notice swelling, bleeding, and colour changes in your gums. Your teeth can then become loose and fall out – or you might need a dental professional to take them out.
The good news is that a dental professional can spot gum disease at an early stage and treat it. Using a tool called a periodontal probe, he or she can measure where your gums attach to your teeth. If it is not just beneath the edge of the gums, but further below, this is a sign of gum disease. X-rays can be used to see whether there has been any loss of bone around the teeth. This helps your dental professional decide whether a tooth can be saved or if it must be removed.
If your gum disease is serious, your dental professional may refer you to a specialist called a periodontist. A periodontist has extra training in treating gum disease and can either prevent additional bone and tooth loss or, in some cases, restore the bone and gum tissue that you have already lost.
Health Risks of Gum Disease
The health of your gums and teeth is important to your overall health, well-being, and appearance. At its most serious, gum disease can cause pain, abscesses, difficulty in eating, bad breath, and a loss of teeth.
There is a strong link between gum disease and diabetes. People with diabetes are not only more at risk of gum disease, but gum disease can also affect the severity of their diabetes, putting them more at risk of diabetic complications later on in life.
The same bacteria found in plaque can also be inhaled into the lungs where they may cause an infection or aggravate any existing lung condition, especially in older adults. This can happen even if you don’t have serious gum disease, but have lots of plaque.
Studies are also examining whether pregnant women with gum disease, including gingivitis, may be at a higher risk of delivering pre-term, low birth weight (PLBW) babies than women without gum disease. Even though this research is still ongoing, it remains important for pregnant women to take care of their gums and teeth.
Risk Factors for Gum Disease
In addition to plaque, there are several factors that can increase your risk of developing gum disease. They include:
- Smoking. In addition to increasing your risk of many serious illnesses such as cancer, lung disease, and heart disease, smoking also increases your risk of gum disease.
- Hormonal changes. Women are especially at risk of gum disease during times of hormonal change such as during puberty, menstruation, pregnancy, and menopause.
- Nutrition. A poorly-balanced diet can increase your risk of developing gum disease.
- Medications. Some drugs may increase your risk of gum disease, such as birth control pills and high blood pressure and arthritis medications.
Minimizing Your Risk
The most important steps you can take to maintain healthy gums and teeth are to care for your teeth and have regular dental checkups.
- Brush your teeth at least twice a day to remove plaque, and floss once a day. An antimicrobial mouth rinse can also be used in combination with brushing and flossing to reduce the bacteria in your mouth. If you already have gum disease, brushing and flossing are even more important.
- See a dental professional regularly to have your teeth and gums checked. This professional will clean your teeth to remove tartar build-up.
- Check your gums and teeth on a regular basis to look for signs of gum disease. These may include:
- Red and swollen (puffy) gums
- Pain in the gum area
- Blood on your toothbrush or floss
- Persistent bad breath
- Loose teeth
- Teeth that have changed position during a short timeframe.
If you have any of these symptoms, see your dental professional right away.
- Quit smoking. See the Need More Info? section for some programs and strategies available to help you stop smoking. You will not only lower your risk of gum disease but lower your risk of developing many other diseases too.
- Eat a healthy diet by following Canada’s Food Guide.
- Keep your dental professional informed of the medications you take.