Gum disease, also known as periodontal disease, is common among many Americans. Signs of gum disease begin to be more noticeable as we age but it can appear as early as in our 30s and 40s. It is more common among men than women and it can range from simple gum inflammation to serious disease resulting in major damage to soft tissue and bone that support the teeth. In the worst case scenario, teeth can loosen and fall out due to bone loss which is the leading cause of tooth loss in adults.
The damage gum disease can cause is not limited to the mouth either. Gum disease has also been associated with an increased risk of serious degenerative diseases such as heart disease, diabetes, chronic respiratory disease, pregnancy complications, and dementia.
It is not known if gum disease can be the actual cause of these health problems or if someone with a chronic health issue has more difficulty taking care of their teeth and gums – at this point, it is only an association and not a cause-and-effect relationship.
How gum disease begins
If there is a common denominator between gum disease and chronic diseases it looks to be inflammation. The inside of our mouth is full of bacteria. These bacteria, along with mucus and other particles, constantly form a sticky, colorless “plaque” on teeth which regular brushing and flossing can help get rid of. If plaque is not regularly removed, it will harden and form “tartar” that brushing can’t clean off. Tartar can only be removed by having a professional cleaning by a dental hygienist.
If the plaque and tartar are not removed, the bacteria will cause inflammation of the gums known as gingivitis. Gingivitis is when the gums become red and swollen and easily bleed, particularly when the teeth are brushed. This form of gum disease is considered mild as it can easily be reversed by brushing and flossing and regular cleaning by a dental professional.
But when gingivitis is not addressed, this can advance to periodontal disease where the gums pull away from the teeth forming spaces that become infected. The body’s immune system will try to fight the bacteria as the plaque spreads and grows below the gum line. Due to the bacterial toxins, the infection will break down the bone and connective tissue holding teeth in place which can eventually cause the teeth to loosen and have to be removed.
Guarding against gum disease
It is crucial for the health of your teeth and mouth to take excellent care of this area of the body from the time we are born. If we want to maintain a healthy smile and the ability to eat food, it is imperative to take steps to prevent bacterial infection reducing inflammation to lower the risk of gum disease. Here are the best ways to do this:
· Brush and floss
At least twice a day, brush and floss your teeth and always floss before bedtime. Individuals with bridges, implants or wide spaces between teeth may want to use interdental brushes which are toothpick-like devices with tiny bristles at one end helping to clean out trapped food particles.
· Use an electric toothbrush
Many of us grew up using a manual toothbrush. But an electric toothbrush is an excellent tool in the fight against gum disease. An electric toothbrush’s rotating head features bristles reaching those hard to reach place that can easily be missed using a manual toothbrush. Electric toothbrushes are also set on a timer so you are brushing longer helping to remove more plaque buildup. Plus, many of us using a manual toothbrush are overly aggressive in brushing teeth and gums which can do further damage to already delicate gum tissue. An electric toothbrush does the work for you preventing you from being too aggressive.
· See a periodontist
Get an annual comprehensive periodontal evaluation (CPE) from a dental professional. A CPE looks at your teeth, plaque level, gums, bite, bone structure and other risk factors for periodontal disease. They can identify symptoms of gum disease early which is a key to protecting teeth and gums.
· Stop smoking
Smoking just a half pack of cigarettes a day will increase the risk of gum disease almost three times more than nonsmokers. Someone who smokes more than a pack and a half of cigarettes each day will have almost six times the risk.
· Eat a healthy diet
In order to reduce inflammation, choosing healthy foods of vegetables, fruits, legumes, nuts, and fatty fish can provide essential nutrients to make this happen. Avoid sugary beverages and other foods containing a large amount of sugar such as cookies, cakes, pie, ice cream or pastries.
Foods containing omega-3 fatty acids found in fatty fish like salmon, tuna and mackerel, and walnuts, have also been known to lower the risk of periodontal disease.
· Go to the dentist every six months
Regular dental visits are necessary to be able to spot the first signs of gum disease. The dentist or dental hygienist is trained in removing bacteria-harboring plaque that regular brushing and flossing cannot remove adequately.
· Get treated at the first signs of gum disease
There are ways a person can detect gum disease themselves:
· Swollen, tender or bleeding gums
· Painful chewing
· Bad breath that won’t go away
· Loose teeth
· Sensitive teeth
· Pockets of pus
· Receding gums making the teeth appear longer
· A widening of spaces between the teeth
· Bridges or dentures that don’t fit as well as they used to
Any of these signs should be checked out by a dentist as soon as possible. The earlier stage gum disease is caught, the greater the chance of retaining your original teeth throughout your life.