With as much as 30 percent of the population at risk, gum disease is the leading cause of tooth loss in adults. The good news is that it can usually be avoided or successfully treated. Let’s start with a basic definition.
Periodontal Disease and How it Occurs
Gum disease, which is also known as periodontitis or periodontal disease, is preceded by an oral health condition known as gingivitis.
Gingivitis is a built-up of plaque, or bacteria, on the teeth. Left untreated, this plaque could inflame the gums. The bacteria then settles into air pockets that form between the tooth and the gums, and these pockets fill with food debris and can turn infected.
Toxins from the infected pockets then start to slowly break down the bone and the connective tissue that holds the tooth in place. That’s when things get serious. But keep in mind, gingivitis does not always lead to periodontal disease.
Causes of gum disease
There are several causes of the gingivitis that can lead to periodontitis. Sometimes it’s simply a matter of genetics. If others in your family have experienced gum disease it could heighten your own risk.
Among women, causes can include changes to their bodies due to puberty, pregnancy and the menstrual cycle.
Illnesses such as cancer, HIV and diabetes can trigger gingivitis. And some medications can be a threat, such as by reducing the amount of saliva you have for washing away plaque before it forms.
While some of these causes are beyond your control, other gum disease triggers can be easily handled. Smokers have a risk factor about seven times greater than non-smokers. Those with poor oral hygiene habits (not brushing or flossing) are also at higher risk.
Symptoms of gingivitis and gum disease
Gingivitis sets in slowly and you might not notice any symptoms at first. In later stages, you might experience bleeding from the gums while you brush your teeth. You might have red or swollen or painfully tender gums. Persistent bad breath and a bad taste in your mouth could be another clue.
Once gum disease has set in, you might notice one or more of your teeth loosening or shifting position.
The most basic thing you can do to minimize the risk of gingivitis is to regularly brush and floss your teeth. This can keep plaque from building up in the first place. You should also get your teeth professionally cleaned twice a year to dodge the buildup. Even if you’re already experiencing gingivitis, this disease can be treated and reversed at an early point with these simple responses.
Your dentist can recommend several more advanced treatments options depending on the stage of the disease and other factors.
One non-surgical technique is called scaling and root cleaning. This procedure, conducted under a local anesthetic, involves the plaque and tartar (a hardened form of plaque) being scraped free from above and below the gum line and rough spots on the tooth caused by plaque buildup being planed smooth. This provides a clean, bacteria-free surface for the gum to reattach to the tooth.
There’s also a surgical technique known as pocket reduction surgery. This involves the infected gum being lifted, the plaque and tartar removed and the gum fitted tightly to the tooth.
If later stages of gum disease, bone grafts, soft tissue grafts or bone surgery might be recommended.
The first step, though, is to see your dentist regularly and be sure to mention any symptoms that might suggest the early onset of gingivitis or gum disease. Your dental professional can reverse the condition before it becomes a real problem — and successfully treat periodontitis even in late stages of progression.