An inflammatory infection of the tissues that surround and support the teeth, gum disease affects over half of all adults worldwide. The direct cause is a build-up of plaque, the sticky film of bacteria that forms on our teeth after eating or drinking.
Accumulated plaque on the teeth can result in infection underneath the gum line and cause gingivitis, which is the earliest stage of gum disease. If gingivitis isn’t properly treated, the gums may begin to pull away from the teeth leaving small pockets where plaque gets trapped. Over time, the plaque hardens to become tartar. The build-up of plaque and tartar can cause further irritation which may spread to the bone structure around the teeth, and the gum and bone may begin to shrink and break down, creating small spaces between teeth and gum. This advanced stage of gum disease is called periodontitis, and can lead to loss of teeth.
In some people, gum disease may affect only certain teeth, like the molars. Most common in adults, it can occur at any age. The condition usually gets worse slowly over time but there can be periods of rapid progression.
You may not know that you have gum disease, because it’s generally not painful in the early stages and you might not notice any symptoms. The first warning signs of gingivitis tend to be redness and swelling in the gums, or bleeding when you brush your teeth. If gingivitis has progressed into periodontitis, you could be aware of a bad taste in your mouth, a wobbly tooth or teeth, pain when chewing, or a collection of pus under the gum that forms a painful abscess. There may be changes in the way your teeth fit together when you bite, or a different ‘feel’ to the fit of dentures. If you do notice any of these symptoms, you should see your dentist right away.
Generally, gum disease is a result of poor oral hygiene, which is more likely to be the case if you find it difficult to clean your teeth because of wearing braces or dentures or you have irregularities in your teeth that make it hard to reach everywhere with a toothbrush. Other factors that increase the risk of gum disease include smoking, hormonal changes such as those occurring during puberty, pregnancy, menstruation or menopause, and a family history of the condition. If you have a chronic condition like diabetes or cancer, you’re also at higher risk of developing gum disease.
Gingivitis is generally easily cured by having your teeth regularly cleaned, scaled and polished by your dentist or oral hygienist to remove the accumulated plaque, eating a healthy balanced diet with plenty of fresh vegetables, and maintaining a good twice-daily routine of brushing and flossing. If gum disease has progressed to periodontitis, it can’t be reversed but appropriate treatment should stop it getting any worse.
You can significantly reduce the likelihood of gum disease by controlling the build-up of plaque and tartar on your teeth – regular visits to the dentist or oral hygienist, proper brushing and flossing, and stopping smoking will all help keep your smile healthy and bright for many years to come.