What every adult needs to know about gum disease

Even after years of regular cleanings and good dental hygiene, it’s common for people to experience periodontal disease, also known as gum disease. In fact, nearly 30% of people aged 30-44 and 46% percent aged 45-64 have gum disease.1

Here’s a look at periodontal disease, the causes and how to prevent and treat it.

What is periodontal disease

“Gum disease refers to inflammation and infection around the tissues that support your teeth and gums,” says David Hershkowitz, D.D.S., division chief of restorative dentistry at Penn Dental Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania. If left untreated, infection can spread to the bone. This can cause pain while you chew and may eventually lead to tooth loss.

What causes gum disease?

Anyone can develop gum disease, at any age. But there are a few factors that can cause it. These include:

  • Poor dental hygiene. Taking care of your gums by brushing and flossing prevents plaque build-up on and around the tooth. If your teeth aren’t taken care of, the bacteria can spread to the bone, causing gum disease.2
  • Dry mouth. This condition occurs when the salivary glands don’t produce enough saliva. 3  
  • Smoking. Tobacco in any form — cigarettes, pipes or spit tobacco — increases the risk. People who smoke have twice the risk of gum disease as that of nonsmokers, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.4
  • Type 2 diabetes. If your blood sugar isn’t well controlled, it can lead to irregular immune responses, inflammation, decreased salivary flow and damage to vessels that bring blood supply and oxygen to the tissues, Dr. Hershkowitz explains.

How to keep your gums healthy

Gum disease can often occur with aging, but it’s not inevitable. Here are some things you can do to help prevent it — or keep it from getting worse.

Brush twice a day

The American Dental Association, recommends brushing twice a day for 2 minutes with a toothpaste containing fluoride. No matter if your toothbrush is manual or electric, both are effective at removing plaque.5

Electric toothbrushes are more expensive than manual ones, but they come at a variety of price points. And the more expensive ones are not necessarily better, notes Dr. Hershkowitz. “Whether you have a $50 electric toothbrush or a $500 one, they do the same things, with proper use,” he says.

Floss daily

Flossing daily helps lowers the risk of developing gum disease.6 “Flossing helps remove bacteria and food that are caught between the teeth, which can cause gum inflammation,” says Dr. Hershkowitz.

If flossing is challenging, you can use a water flosser. This is a device that aims a stream of water between your teeth to help remove food particles.

See the dentist regularly

Dr. Hershkowitz recommends that you see the dentist twice a year. You should also make an appointment to visit the dentist if you notice any signs of gum disease, including:2

  • Red, swollen, tender or bleeding gums
  • Loose or sensitive teeth
  • Pain while you chew
  • Persistent bad breath

Quit smoking

Smoking weakens your immune system, making it harder for the body to fight off gum infections. And if you do need to be treated for gum disease, the treatments may not work as well for smokers.4

Get treatment as soon as possible

Mild periodontal disease can be treated with scaling and root planing, says Dr. Hershkowitz. Your dentist will remove all the plaque above and below the gumline, cleaning all the way down to the bottom of your gum pocket. Then they will smooth out the teeth roots, to help your gums reattach. This generally takes more than one visit, and it often requires local anesthesia.7

If you have more extensive gum disease, it may require surgery. Your dentist will fold back gum tissue to remove disease-causing bacteria, then smooth over diseased bone before putting the tissue back into place.8

It’s best to see your dentist as soon as you notice any gum issues — and to keep up with regular dental checkups. That way, you can keep your teeth and gums as healthy as possible as you age.

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