WebMD Health - Dental

Aug 10, 2010 7:02 PM

Preventing and Treating Gum Problems

Healthy teeth depend on healthy gums. Gums protect the base of the teeth, where connective tissue anchors them to bone. Left untreated, gum problems can lead to tooth loss. Fortunately, there's plenty you can do to keep gums healthy.

2 Types of Gum Disease

Gum disease takes two forms: gingivitis and periodontitis.

Gingivitis occurs when bacteria collect in tiny pockets at the gum line, causing inflammation. The most common symptoms are bleeding when teeth are brushed and persistent bad breath. Gingivitis accounts for about 70% of gum disease. Periodontitis makes up the other 30%.

If gingivitis goes untreated, the inflammation can invade connective tissue and even bone. This causes periodontitis.

Symptoms of periodontitis include:

  • Receding gums
  • Visible pockets of inflammation along the gum line
  • Gum pain
  • Unusual sensitivity to temperature changes.

Eventually, even the healthiest teeth can become loose and even fall out.

The Role of Dental Exams in Preventing Gum Disease

"Unfortunately, by the time most people notice any of the warning signs of periodontitis, it's too late to reverse the damage," says Sam Low, DDS, professor of periodontology at the University of Florida and president of the American Academy of Periodontology.

That's why regular dental checkups are so important, according to Low. Dentists spot trouble in the form of pockets of inflammation or places where gum tissue has eroded slightly, exposing the root of the tooth.

  • With regular checkups, the condition of your gum tissue can be compared over time. Any erosion that has taken place is noted. Dental X-rays can reveal early signs of gum disease.
  • During the exam, the dentist carefully measures the depth of gum pockets around a selected number of teeth. This exam should be repeated every 18 to 36 months, according to Low.

Unfortunately, not all dentists check carefully enough for gum disease.

"We estimate that only about one-third of general dentists really take the time to really look for gum disease," says Low.

The American Academy of Periodontology works closely with professional dental groups to encourage better detection of gum problems during dental checkups.

Catching signs of gum disease early may be far more important than previously thought, experts say. Advanced periodontal disease can cause tooth loss. But it may also cause other health problems.

Periodontal Disease Affects Your Health

"We now know that periodontal disease as an inflammatory condition that affects the whole body," says Anthony M. Iacopino, DMD, PhD, dean of the University of Manitoba Faculty of Dentistry.

Having periodontal disease increases the inflammatory burden throughout the body, adds Iacopino. Elevated levels of inflammation are linked to a wide range of diseases, such as:

  • Heart disease
  • Diabetes. People with diabetes are known to be at greater risk of serious gum disease.
  • Arthritis
  • Infertility

Researchers are still studying the link between gum disease and other inflammatory conditions.

"We don't have the evidence yet to say that periodontitis causes heart disease or diabetes," says Iacopino. "But we do know that when we reduce levels of whole body inflammation, people with heart disease or diabetes tend to have fewer complications. And one of the easiest ways to reduce inflammation is to treat periodontal disease."

Prevention and Treatment of Gum Disease

Proper dental hygiene can go a long way toward preventing gum disease. Most of us know the basics:

  • Brush your teeth at least twice a day, for two minutes.
  • Floss daily.
  • Antibacterial mouth rinses can offer more protection, says Low.
  • Smoking increases the danger of gum disease by damaging gum tissue and increasing inflammation. If you smoke, preventing gum disease is one more very good reason to try to quit.
  • If gingivitis occurs, your dentist can scrape away plaque buildup at the gum line.
  • Brushing, flossing, and using an antibacterial rinse can usually prevent gingivitis from recurring.

Managing Periodontitis

Managing periodontitis is more complex, because the inflammation has already invaded below the gun line.

  • The first step is to remove plaque and tartar from below the gum line. This may require a local anesthetic.
  • After the procedure, an antibiotic may be prescribed to help eliminate infection. In some cases, oral surgery may be required to fold back gum tissue. Surgery can also eliminate deeper pockets of infection.
  • Grafted tissue may have to be used to replace areas where gum has eroded to expose the roots of teeth.

After treatment, good dental care can help reduce the risk of further inflammation and damage. Your dentist or periodontist may recommend more frequent checkups to monitor gum health.

Following a healthy diet can help you maintain healthy gums. New research has begun to suggest that a diet rich in omega-3 fatty acids, the kinds found in fish, fish oil and flaxseed, may also help by reducing inflammation.

"Periodontitis is a condition that needs to be managed carefully," says Low. "But with regular periodontal care, we can keep gums healthy and prevent tooth loss."

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