Periodontal Diseases

Caring for Your Gums

By Katherine Ladny Mitchell

Periodontal diseases, or gum diseases, occur when the tissues and bone supporting the teeth become infected. While advanced periodontal disease may lead to tooth loss, many cases can be reversed and prevented by proper oral hygiene.

There are two main types of periodontal disease: gingivitis and periodontitis. Gingivitis is the milder of the two, primarily affecting the gums. When mixed with sugars and starches from food, oral bacteria produce a clear, sticky film called plaque. Plaque continually accumulates on the teeth and soon hardens into tartar around the gums. Too strong to be brushed or flossed away, tartar can only be removed by a dentist or dental hygienist.

The bacteria housed in tartar irritate gum tissue, causing the formation of pockets (spaces) between the gum and tooth. Over time, more and more bacteria infect and widen these pockets, leading to deeper damage around the connective tissue and bone of the tooth. This advanced stage of periodontal disease is known as periodontitis. Left untreated, the bacterial toxins will break down these tissues and cause teeth to eventually fall out.

Periodontal disease often progresses painlessly, developing without any obvious symptoms, though a dentist’s trained eye can help detect and prevent the disease early on. In later stages, periodontal disease produces red, swollen or sensitive gums that may bleed easily and recede from the teeth. Other symptoms include persistent bad breath, loose teeth, change in tooth position, a bad taste in one’s mouth, and pus between gums.

There are several risk factors for periodontal disease. These include failing to brush and floss regularly, smoking or chewing tobacco, eating an unbalanced diet, genetics, stress, an impaired immune system, hormonal changes (especially in women during puberty, pregnancy and menopause), oral contraceptives, diabetes, dental correctives (such as fillings and bridges) that don’t fit well and some medications.

Thankfully, there are several ways to help reverse, treat and prevent periodontal disease. Brushing well twice a day, flossing daily, eating a healthy diet, and getting regular dental cleanings will help prevent tartar buildup. Advanced stages of periodontal disease can be treated with intense dental cleanings such as scaling and root planing (removing tarter from tooth enamel and roots), antibiotics, surgery, and soft tissue and bone grafting.