What is Gum Disease?

All about gum disease

Gum disease, or periodontal disease, is a bacterial infection that causes a chronic inflammation of the gums and surrounding tissue. It is the major cause of about 70 percent of adult tooth loss, affecting nearly 80 percent of people at some point in their life. Gum disease includes gingivitis (the early stage of gum disease) and periodontitis (a more advanced stage of gum disease).

What Causes Gum Disease?

Plaque – a sticky, colorless bacteria-filled film that constantly forms on the teeth – is recognized as the primary cause of gum disease. If plaque isn’t removed each day by brushing and flossing, it hardens into a rough, porous substance called tartar (also known as calculus), which can be difficult to remove. The bacteria in plaque produce toxins that irritate the gums and cause inflammation and gingivitis.

These toxins cause the breakdown of the gum tissue, causing gums to pull away from the teeth, and creating pockets that fill with even more plaque, bacteria and toxins. As the disease progresses, the pockets grow deeper, and the plaque and bacteria move further down the tooth root, destroying supporting bone. The affected teeth may loosen and eventually fall out or require extraction.

Are There Other Factors That Contribute to Gum Disease?

Genetics is also a factor in gum disease, as are lifestyle choices. A diet low in nutrients can lessen the body’s ability to fight infection and increase a person’s susceptibility to gum disease. Smokers and smokeless tobacco users have more irritation to gum tissues than non-tobacco users, and this increases the susceptibility to gum disease. Stress can also affect the ability to ward off disease and may contribute to an increased incidence of gum disease.

Diseases that interfere with the body’s immune system, such as leukemia and AIDS, may worsen the condition of the gums. In patients with uncontrolled diabetes, where the body is more prone to infection, gum disease can be more severe or harder to control. Pregnant women experience elevated levels of hormones that cause the gums to react differently to the bacteria found in plaque, and in many cases can cause a temporary condition known as "pregnancy gingivitis", which, if left untreated, can progress to periodontal disease.

What Are the Warning Signs of Gum Disease?

Signs of gum disease include:

  • Red, swollen or tender gums
  • Bleeding gums while brushing or flossing
  • Gums that seem to be pulling away from your teeth
  • Teeth that are loose or are separating from each other
  • Persistent bad breath or a bad taste in your mouth
  • A change in the fit of partial dentures

While you should always check for the warning signs of gum disease when you are brushing and flossing, be aware that there might not be any discomfort until the disease has reached an advanced stage. That’s why it’s important to visit your dentist regularly to have your teeth cleaned. Your dentist can monitor your oral health and help you identify and prevent problems before they become more serious.

Information courtesy of the Academy of General Dentistry.
Last updated: April 2011

The oral health information on this website is intended for educational purposes only. You should always consult a licensed dentist or other qualified health care professional for any questions concerning your oral health.

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