Gum disease is not a new problem. In the past, it was one of the major causes of rampant tooth loss. Today, moderate gum disease remains common. And severe disease can still result in lost teeth. But now we're aware that there's another reason to pay special attention to those pearly whites: Gum disease can affect other parts of your body.
What is gum disease?
Gum disease, such as gingivitis or periodontal disease, is an infection of the gums and bone around the teeth. It is caused by bacteria in the mouth. If the bacteria stay on the teeth long enough, they create a film called plaque. Over time, the plaque hardens to become tartar, which can spread under the gum line. When this occurs, it is more difficult for a dentist to clean the teeth and stop the disease from getting worse.
Stages of periodontal disease
The early form of gum disease is called gingivitis. The gums become red and swollen. They may bleed.
For some people, gingivitis comes and goes. It is reversible if it's treated early.
Gingivitis that is not treated can lead to periodontitis. The body detects the infection and the immune system kicks in to fight it. But at the same time, bacterial toxins and the body's natural response to infection start to break down the bone and connective tissue that hold teeth in place. If not treated, teeth may eventually get loose and fall out.
Health threats beyond the mouth
From the mouth, bacteria from chronic infection can travel into the circulatory system. The bacteria may then contribute to diseases of the heart and other organs.
Diabetes. People with diabetes have a greater chance of developing gum disease. That's probably because diabetes increases the chances of getting infections. When periodontal disease occurs, it can in turn make it harder for people with diabetes to control their blood sugar. Severe periodontal disease can increase blood sugar.
Heart disease. Some researchers have found that people with gum disease have a greater chance of developing heart disease. So far, scientists do not know for sure whether gum disease actually causes heart disease. Further studies are needed.
Lung disease. Bacteria in the mouth can be breathed into your lungs. This can cause respiratory diseases like pneumonia, especially if you have periodontal disease, research shows.
Pregnancy complications. Women with gum disease were more likely in some studies to deliver low-birth-weight and premature babies. But there is no proof at this time that gum disease causes the pregnancy problems.
Warning signs of gum disease
People usually don't get gum disease until they are in their 30s or 40s. See your dentist if you have any of the following signs of periodontal disease:
- Bad breath
- Red or swollen gums
- Gums that hurt or bleed
- Sensitive teeth
- Painful chewing
- Loose teeth
- Gums that have pulled away from the teeth
- A change in your bite
- Any change in the fit of partial dentures
How to reduce your risk
Don't smoke. People who smoke are at a much higher risk of having periodontal disease.
Regularly brush and floss. Brushing and flossing twice per day helps remove the plaque that can cause gum disease.
See your dentist. Your dentist can tell you if you have gum disease and work to help you control it. Only a professional cleaning can reduce tartar.
With some careful attention, you can take care of your teeth — which may help keep the rest of your body healthy, too.
Created on 02/24/2000
Updated on 02/11/2013
- National Institutes of Health. Periodontal diseases.
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Periodontal disease.
- National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research. Periodontal (gum) disease: Causes, symptoms, and treatments.