Gum disease, which is also known as periodontal disease or periodontitis, is a serious infection affecting the tissues that help attach teeth to the jawbone. The disease is typically caused by poor oral hygiene practices such as lack of brushing and flossing, which allow plaque buildup on teeth. Plaque is associated with the proliferation of bacteria that infect the gums. When plaque hardens, it forms tartar, which wrecks the gums and causes them to recede.
If not treated, gum disease can lead to inflamed and bleeding gums, severe pain especially when chewing, loose teeth, and even tooth loss.
Causes of gum disease
One of the characteristics of your mouth is that it is a habitat for bacteria. These bacteria, combined with food particles and saliva, constantly create a sticky, colorless film known as plaque on your teeth. Brushing your teeth and flossing everyday helps remove plaque. Any plaque that is not eliminated can form a hard layer that is referred to as tartar, which even brushing cannot remove.
Plaque is associated with bacteria that can destroy the tooth enamel and cause cavities. Similarly, tartar, which forms above and below the gum line, can cause receding gums and serious infection of the gums due to the presence of bacteria.
The various stages of the process that leads to gum disease are explained below.
Plaque is formed on the teeth: When you eat food that has sugars and starch, these compounds interact with the bacteria that are present in the mouth. Brushing and flossing help remove plaque, but the layer is reestablished quickly.
Plaque hardens into tartar: If plaque stays on the surface of teeth for long, it hardens into tartar. The hardened plaque is more difficult to get rid of and it also has a lot of bacteria. If plaque and tartar stay for long in your mouth, more damage will be done. To remove tartar, you should visit a dentist for dental cleaning.
Ongoing inflammation of the gums can develop into periodontitis: An untreated gum inflammation causes pockets to be formed between teeth and gums. These pockets are eventually filled with bacteria, plaque and tartar. Over time, the pockets grow bigger and deeper, and are filled with more bacteria. This causes a severe infection of the gums, which can lead to a loss of the tissues that hold teeth in place, as well as part of the bone. Eventually, this may lead to tooth loss. The chronic inflammation also puts notable stress on the patient’s immunity.
The accumulation of plaque on the teeth gums can lead to gum inflammation, also known as gingivitis: Gingivitis is a less severe form of periodontitis, but if you leave it untreated, it will develop into full-blown gum disease. You can reverse gingivitis by visiting a dentist for professional treatment and practicing proper oral hygiene.
Symptoms of the disease
If you have gum disease, you are likely to experience any or a combination of the following signs:
A persistent bad breath
Red, purplish or inflamed gums
Presence of pus in the areas between your gums and teeth
Pain when chewing
Receding gums or teeth that appear to be longer than usual. When your teeth appear to be longer, this is because your gums have receded.
Teeth that are loosely positioned in the gums
Occurrence of new spaces or gaps between your teeth
A change in the grip of your teeth when you bite something
Gums that bleed easily, especially when flossing or brushing
Treatment of gum disease
Treatment of periodontal disease begins with a proper diagnosis of the condition.
When you visit a dental care provider, the dental hygienist or dentist will do the following:
Check your gums to determine whether they are showing signs of inflammation.
Use a probe to check for and determine the size of any pockets in the gums near the teeth. A healthy mouth typically has pockets that measure 1-3 mm. The process of determining the depth of pockets is normally painless.
The dental practitioner may also take an X-ray of the teeth and jaw to determine whether the disease has affected the jawbone. Any damage to the jawbone will be evidenced by bone loss.
The dental practitioner may as well refer you to a periodontal specialist. A periodontal specialist (periodontist) is an expert in the analysis and treatment of periodontal disease. This specialist may provide you with more specialized treatment options that a regular dentist does not offer.
Inquire about your medical history in order to determine the factors that could have contributed to the disease. Such factors include risk factors like diabetes and smoking.
The type or types of treatment that your dental practitioner will recommend depend on the extent of the periodontal disease. There are non-surgical treatments as well as treatment procedures that involve surgery.
Dental cleaning: This involves professional removal of plaque and tartar. Your dentist may recommend dental cleaning several times a year.
Root planing and scaling: This procedure involves deep cleaning below the gum line to remove rough spots on the root of the tooth, which can promote the development of gum disease by harboring bacteria. The procedure is carried out under an anesthetic.
For some patients, root planing and scaling may be all that is required to treat periodontal disease. Surgery is required in cases where the gum tissue has been severely damaged and cannot be treated using any non-surgical method. The surgical treatments for gum disease include:
Soft tissue grafting
Surgery of the jawbone
Guided tissue regeneration
Your dentist will recommend any of the surgical methods depending on the type and extent of damage that needs to be repaired.
Gum disease is a dangerous but fairly preventable dental illness. You can prevent the disease by making regular dental visits and observing good oral hygiene practices like brushing and flossing daily. Regular dental visits can also help your dentist detect the disease early, thus averting the need for more complex treatments like surgery.