How gum disease can put your health at risk

Some dental problems, such as toothaches, are easy to pinpoint. Others, such as gum disease, not so much. That may be why more than 40% of American adults ages 30 and older have some signs of gum disease, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.1 That number includes the mildest and earliest form of gum disease, gingivitis.

Gingivitis typically doesn’t cause any pain, so people may not know they have it until their dentist tells them. Luckily, it’s reversible when caught early.2 But if left unchecked, gingivitis can turn more serious. And it can affect a person’s overall health, not just their teeth and mouth.

The best course of action is to get informed — that way, you can recognize, treat and even prevent it.

What is gingivitis?

“Gingivitis is an inflammation of the gums,” says Teresa Yang, D.D.S., a dentist in Los Angeles. When plaque, a thin film made up of bacteria, forms on the teeth, it can irritate the gums, causing inflammation and swelling, she explains.

There are certain factors that can increase the risk of gingivitis. Those include: 3, 4

  • Infections or diseases. Those that affect the immune system and increase inflammation may have a correlation with gingivitis.

  • Smoking. It can weaken your immune system and make gum disease more likely.

  • Medications. Talk to a provider about anti-seizure drugs and heartburn medications containing bismuth, an ingredient in Kaopectate and Pepto-Bismol.

Gingivitis may not cause any pain. But it does have some other signs.2 The most common ones are red, swollen gums and bleeding after brushing or flossing. The gums may also be tender to the touch.

Getting your teeth cleaned by a dentist every 6 months can keep gingivitis at bay. So can regular brushing and flossing between visits. But if one or the other isn’t kept up, gingivitis can give rise to more serious gum disease.

UnitedHealthcare Medicare Advantage members with dental coverage can download the UnitedHealthcare® app to find dental care, manage plan details and more.

The health risks of gingivitis

Without proper care or treatment, plaque can spread below the gumline.5 When that happens, “gingivitis can escalate to periodontitis or periodontal (gum) disease. That can affect the long-term health and stability of the teeth,” says Dr. Yang.

All that plaque causes even more irritation and inflammation. That can trigger the breakdown of the tissue and bone that support the teeth. The gums can recede, leading to loose teeth and even tooth loss.5 Periodontitis can happen at any age.2 But age is a risk factor — and 70% of adults ages 65 and older have some form of periodontitis.6

Gum disease isn’t just bad for the mouth though. There is a link between periodontitis and some other health conditions. Here are a few.


People with diabetes are up to 3 times more likely to have gum disease, according to the American Diabetes Association.7 That’s because diabetes can increase blood sugar levels in saliva, resulting in more mouth bacteria and plaque buildup.

But the opposite may be true also. Inflammation from gum disease can lead to higher blood sugar levels. And that, in turn, can raise the risk of type 2 diabetes.7

High blood pressure

People with gum disease may be twice as likely to have high blood pressure as people with healthy gums, according to a study published in Hypertension, a journal of the American Heart Association. The study found that people with periodontitis also had higher levels of blood sugar and LDL (“bad”) cholesterol.8

Heart disease and stroke

There’s a link between gum disease and heart disease. Chronic inflammation from gum disease can increase inflammation throughout the body. That can lead to a hardening of the arteries (atherosclerosis), as well as heart attacks and strokes.9

Who is more prone to getting gingivitis?

Just about anyone can develop gingivitis, says Dr. Yang. But anyone who has trouble keeping up with brushing and flossing has a higher risk. That includes the following groups of people, she notes:

  • Older adults. As people age, they may not be able to floss or brush as well because their hands aren’t as flexible, or because they may have poor eyesight.
  • Anyone with physical or cognitive impairments. This includes people with Parkinson’s disease or dementia. Physical conditions that involve hand mobility may make brushing harder. Memory issues may cause people to forget about brushing and flossing or whether they’ve done it already.
  • Smokers. Smoking makes people more vulnerable to infections, including gum infections, and it makes it harder for the gums to heal once a person has gum disease.10

How to prevent gingivitis

Good oral hygiene is key to preventing gingivitis. “This means brushing your teeth twice a day with a fluoridated toothpaste and flossing your teeth. If regular flossing is too difficult, use a device such as a water flosser,” says Dr. Yang.

Also consider using an antibacterial mouthwash or rinse after brushing and flossing. That can help stop bacteria from gingivitis in its tracks. The American Dental Association recommends mouthwashes that help reduce or control plaque, not ones that are just meant to freshen breath. Plaque-controlling mouthwashes are available over the counter. Or a dentist may determine that a person needs something stronger and write them a prescription.11

Another important step? Going to the dentist for routine dental cleanings and exams every 6 months. It can help keep gums and teeth healthy, and it’s good for health in general. That’s a win-win.

Protect what you have. Schedule routine cleanings and exams with a dentist twice a year. Already a UnitedHealthcare Medicare Advantage member with dental coverage? Sign in to your plan website to review dental benefits and schedule an appointment.

Already a UnitedHealthcare® Medicare Advantage member?

Get more to smile about. Have dental coverage? Review coverage and benefits and schedule routine cleanings and exams with a dentist.