Like many other conditions, gum disease can be sneaky. In its earliest stages, you may not notice anything has changed with your teeth or gums – especially if it’s been a while since your last dental checkup.
So, what exactly is gum disease and what symptoms might you be able to spot? Keep reading to get the answers to these questions and more.
What is gum disease?
Gum disease, also called periodontal disease, is an infection of the gums and other tissues surrounding the teeth.
What causes gum disease?
Gum disease can occur when too much plaque builds up on teeth. Our mouths are always forming plaque, which contains bacteria that feed on the sugar and starches in the things we eat and drink. Without good oral hygiene habits, diet and regular dental checkups, plaque builds up and hardens, which is called tartar or calculus.
Once tartar has formed, it acts as a “home” for bacteria. This allows bacteria to grow and continuously expose your teeth and any surrounding tissue to acid, which can lead to inflammation. This can also cause mechanical irritation to your gums, which can lead to ulcers. Inflammation can eventually start to break down the affected tissues and bone, giving bacteria more room to grow, and damaging your teeth and gums.
What are the stages of gum disease?
There are two different stages of gum disease: gingivitis and periodontitis.
Gingivitis is the earliest stage of gum disease, where symptoms are usually mild and limited to the tissues surrounding the teeth. If gum disease is caught and treated at this stage, it usually can be treated without major damage to your gums. But if left untreated, it can progress into periodontitis.
Periodontitis is more severe gum disease where infection has spread below the gums, damaging the tissues and bone that support the teeth. There are three stages of periodontitis disease: early periodontitis, moderate periodontitis and advanced periodontitis. There are specific markers for each stage, which are used by dentists during diagnosis.
Gum disease symptoms
The early stages of gum disease often don’t involve any pain or discomfort. This makes it important to look out for other signs like visual changes to your gums or teeth. The longer gum disease is left untreated, the more damage it can cause and the more costly it can be to treat. So if you notice one or more of the symptoms below, it’s best to see a dentist as soon as possible.
What does gum disease look like?
Healthy gums are light pink, firm and fit tightly around teeth, while infected gums can be:
- Swollen or puffy
- Dull red (more common with gingivitis)
- Bright red or purplish (more common with periodontitis)
Other early signs of gum disease
The most common signs of early gum disease are:
- Gums that bleed easily when you brush or floss
- Bad breath
- Gums that pull away from the teeth
- Tender gums (sometimes)
Signs of more advanced gum disease
In addition to the early signs above, symptoms of more advanced gum disease include:
- A pink tinge to your toothbrush after brushing
- Spitting out blood when brushing or flossing your teeth
- Bad breath that won’t go away
- Painful chewing
- New spaces developing between your teeth
- Pus between your teeth and gums
- Loose teeth or loss of teeth
- Changes in how your teeth fit together when you bite
How is gum disease diagnosed?
To diagnose gum disease, a dentist will examine your mouth for symptoms like tartar buildup, easy bleeding and receding gums. They’ll also review your dental and medical histories for possible risk factors.
A dentist may also use a dental probe as part of the diagnosis, and to determine what stage of gum disease you have. This is done by measuring the depth of the spaces (or pockets) between your teeth and your gums, and checking for any loss of the connective tissue that holds your teeth in their sockets. X-rays may also be taken to check for bone loss around them.
- A healthy mouth generally has pockets that are 1-3 millimeters deep.
- Mild periodontitis is defined as two or more pockets with at least 3 millimeters of connective tissue loss, and two or more pockets that are at least 4 millimeters deep, or one pocket that’s 5 millimeters deep.
- Moderate periodontitis is defined as two or more pockets with at least 4 millimeters of connective tissue loss, or two or more pockets that are at least 5 millimeters deep.
- Severe periodontitis is defined as two or more pockets with at least 6 millimeters of connective tissue loss, and one or more pockets that are at least 5 millimeters deep.
How do you prevent gum disease?
Good oral hygiene is key to preventing gum disease. For your daily life, this means brushing at least twice a day and flossing between your teeth once a day. But good oral hygiene also means following a dentist-recommended schedule of regular dental checkups. These checkups are opportunities to get your teeth cleaned more deeply than you can clean them at home, and they also allow your dentist to catch and treat signs of oral health issues like gum disease before they become severe.
In addition, there are lifestyle factors that can help keep your mouth healthy. Two of the biggest are:
- Eating a balanced diet. Proper nutrition keeps your immune system strong, which makes it more effective at fighting infections like gum disease. It’s also important to limit excess sugar since it’s what the bacteria that cause gum disease feed on.
- Not using tobacco products. Tobacco use (as well as smoking of any kind) increases your risk of gum disease and makes it harder for your body to fight infections.
Other gum disease risk factors
- Family history of gum disease
- Uncontrolled diabetes
- A suppressed immune system from medication or health conditions
- Changes in hormone levels, such as during pregnancy or while using hormonal birth control
- Conditions that affect inflammation, such as rheumatoid arthritis or Crohn’s disease
How do you treat gum disease?
Gum disease that’s progressed beyond gingivitis requires professional treatment, but successful treatment depends on you, too.
To make sure gum disease doesn’t come back in the future, it’s important to address any risk factors you have, in the same way that you would if you were trying to prevent it in the first place. This could include improving your oral hygiene, changing your diet, losing weight, quitting smoking or managing chronic health conditions like diabetes.
Professional treatment for less advanced cases of gum disease typically involves root planing and scaling (deep cleaning). Planing and scaling may take multiple visits to complete. At HealthPartners Dental, we provide a local anesthesia or anesthetic rinses to help keep our patients comfortable during deep cleanings.
- Scaling is the process of removing plaque and tartar from your teeth.
- Root planing is smoothing the surface of a tooth’s root. This makes it harder for bacteria to build up and makes it easier for the gums to reattach if inflammation caused them to separate from the teeth.
- Antibiotics help get rid of the infection-causing bacteria. Antibiotics may come in the form of pills, rinses or gel inserts placed in infected pockets after scaling and planing.
- Gum surgery may be necessary for advanced cases of gum disease.
Look after your oral health
If you’re noticing pain in your mouth, bleeding gums or other unusual symptoms, don’t ignore them. Without treatment, gum disease may advance and lead to more painful and costly dental problems. A dentist can examine your mouth for issues, provide the exact treatment you need and offer expert recommendations that will help keep your teeth strong and healthy for years to come.