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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’s the major cause of about 70% of adult tooth loss, affecting nearly 80% 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 is the main cause of gum disease. Plaque is a sticky, colorless bacteria-filled film that constantly forms on our teeth. If it isn’t removed each day by brushing and flossing, this film hardens into a rough, porous substance called tartar or calculus, which can be difficult to remove at home.

When you go for a teeth cleaning, your dentist or hygienist removes tartar. If left alone, the bacteria in plaque can produce toxins that irritate your gums and cause inflammation and gingivitis.

These toxins cause the breakdown of the gum tissue, causing your gums to pull away from your teeth. That creates 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 the bone. The affected teeth can loosen and eventually fall out or require extraction.

Other contributing factors 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. Tobacco can contribute to gum irritation which increases susceptibility to gum disease. Stress can also affect your ability to ward off disease and may contribute to an increased likelihood of developing gum disease.

Diseases that interfere with the body’s immune system, like cancer 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.

Warning signs of gum disease

If you experience any of these symptoms, you may have gum disease:

  • 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’re brushing and flossing, be aware that you might not feel 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.

Last updated July 21, 2021

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