Healthy teeth depend on healthy gums. Gums protect the base of the teeth, where connective tissue anchors them to bone. Left untreated, gum problems can lead to tooth loss. Fortunately, there’s plenty you can do to keep gums healthy.
2 Types of Gum Disease
Gum disease takes two forms: gingivitis and periodontitis.
Gingivitis occurs when bacteria collect in tiny pockets at the gum line, causing inflammation. The most common symptoms are bleeding when teeth are brushed and persistent bad breath. Gingivitis accounts for about 70% of gum disease. Periodontitis makes up the other 30%.
If gingivitis goes untreated, the inflammation can invade connective tissue and even bone. This causes periodontitis.
Symptoms of periodontitis include:
- Receding gums
- Visible pockets of inflammation along the gum line
- Gum pain
- Unusual sensitivity to temperature changes
Eventually, even the healthiest teeth can become loose and even fall out.
The Role of Dental Exams in Preventing Gum Disease
“Unfortunately, by the time most people notice any of the warning signs of periodontitis, it’s too late to reverse the damage,” says Sam Low, DDS, professor of periodontology at the University of Florida and president of the American Academy of Periodontology.
That’s why regular dental checkups are so important, according to Low. Dentists spot trouble in the form of pockets of inflammation or places where gum tissue has eroded slightly, exposing the root of the tooth.
- With regular checkups, the condition of your gum tissue can be compared over time. Any erosion that has taken place is noted. Dental X-rays can reveal early signs of gum disease.
- During the exam, the dentist carefully measures the depth of gum pockets around a selected number of teeth. You should have this exam every 18 to 36 months, according to Low.
Unfortunately, not all dentists check carefully enough for gum disease.
“We estimate that only about one-third of general dentists really take the time to really look for gum disease,” says Low.
The American Academy of Periodontology works closely with professional dental groups to encourage better detection of gum problems during dental checkups.
Catching signs of gum disease early may be far more important than previously thought, experts say. Advanced periodontal disease can cause tooth loss. But it may also cause other health problems.
Prevention and Treatment of Gum Disease
Proper dental hygiene can go a long way toward preventing gum disease. Most of us know the basics:
- Brush your teeth at least twice a day, for two minutes.
- Floss every day.
- Use an antibacterial mouth rinse for more protection from plaque and to improve gingivitis.
- Smoking increases the danger of gum disease by damaging gum tissue and increasing inflammation. If you smoke, preventing gum disease is one more very good reason to try to quit.
- If gingivitis occurs, your dentist can scrape away plaque buildup at the gum line.
- Brushing, flossing, and using an antibacterial rinse can usually prevent gingivitis from recurring.
Managing periodontitis is more complex, because the inflammation has already invaded below the gum line. You’ll need care from a dentist and home care as well.
- The first step is for a dentist to remove plaque and tartar from below the gum line. You may need a local anesthetic so you don’t feel pain.
- Next, your dentist may prescribe an antibiotic to prevent infection. Some people, may need periodontal surgery to fold back gum tissue. Periodontal surgery can also treat deeper pockets of infection.
- Your dentist or periodontist may need to do a procedure called grafting. For that, he takes tissue from one part of your mouth (such as the roof) to replace gum tissue that has eroded, exposing the roots of your teeth.
After treatment, commit to practicing good dental care to reduce your risk of further inflammation and damage. Your dentist or periodontist may recommend more frequent checkups to monitor gum health. Between those visits, brush, floss, and rinse at home to prevent tartar from returning.
Following a healthy diet can help you maintain healthy gums. New research suggests that a diet rich in omega-3 fatty acids, the kinds found in fatty fish (herring, salmon, sardines, trout, tuna,) fish oil, and flaxseed, reduces inflammation.
“Periodontitis is a condition that needs to be managed carefully,” Low says. “But with regular periodontal care, [you and your dental team] can keep gums healthy and prevent tooth loss.”