Gum disease, or periodontal disease, is an infection in the tissue that surrounds and supports your teeth. Gum disease is extremely common in the United States; more than 50 percent of American adults over the age of 30 have some form of periodontitis, and even more have some level of gingivitis.
Gingivitis is the first stage of gum disease, and symptoms include red, swollen, or bleeding gums. Most of the time, gingivitis isn’t painful, so it can often go unnoticed. The more advanced stages of gum disease are called periodontitis and can lead to advanced deterioration of gums, causing teeth to become loose or fall out. This causes other teeth to shift in the mouth and become loose, creating a vicious cycle of tooth loss and a rapid decline in oral health.
So, what causes this plague to oral health, and how can it be prevented?
Bacteria. The most common cause of periodontal disease is unchecked bacteria. There are millions of bacteria in the mouth all the time that create a thin, clear layer of plaque on the teeth and near the gumline. If this bacteria isn’t regularly removed by brushing and flossing, it can harden onto teeth and become tartar, which can only be removed during a cleaning by a dentist or dental hygienist.
When this bacteria settles near the gumline, it causes inflammation and infection that can separate the tissue from the surface of the tooth. This allows for more bacteria to invade this usually sealed area and the cycle continues.
Smoking. Among other countless health risks that it poses, smoking cigarettes has adverse effects on your oral health. Smoking is considered the most significant risk factor for chronic periodontitis, with more than half of the cases of chronic periodontitis in U.S. caused by tobacco use. DentistryIQ.com states, “There is an abundance of scientific evidence that smoking has an additive effect on the progression of periodontal disease and is detrimental to healing after periodontal therapy.”
The effects of tobacco may also mask some of the usual symptoms of gum disease, such as bleeding or swollen gums. This can cause issues to go unnoticed for long periods of time, making treatment more involved as time goes on.
Hormonal Changes. For women especially, changes in hormone levels due to puberty and pregnancy can pose an increased risk for gum disease. During puberty the body produces higher levels of progesterone and estrogen, increasing the blood flow to the gums. This can cause the gum tissue to become more sensitive to the irritants in plaque.
Women must be very attentive to their oral health when expecting a baby. The hormonal changes that come with pregnancy increase the risk of periodontal disease. Both periodontitis and gingivitis have also been shown to lead to low birth weight or even premature birth, so expectant mothers are encouraged to go in for dental cleanings as often as possible.
Diabetes. According to the American Dental Association (ADA), one in five cases of total tooth loss is linked to diabetes. Gum disease is an infection in the mouth, and any infection in the body causes blood sugar levels to rise, making it harder to keep diabetes under control. In turn, poor blood sugar control has been shown to contribute to gingivitis and periodontal disease, creating a cycle of deterioration.
Prevention. The good news is that periodontal disease is one of the most preventable health conditions out there. While outside circumstances do play a part sometimes, the most important thing you can do to avoid complications with gum disease is stick to a regular oral health regimen. This includes brushing your teeth thoroughly for two minutes, twice a day and flossing once a day. You should also be visiting your dentist every six months for a cleaning and exam.