Caring for your teeth and gums can be a little confusing — dentists may use scientific and lay terms interchangeably, making it hard to understand what’s at stake if you find out you have “gum disease.”
But it’s important to know the differences between the terms used to describe what’s going on around your teeth, because gum disease is often known as a “silent” ailment, experts say.
“There may be warning signs, or you may not have symptoms until the infection reaches an advanced stage,” says David Genet, a periodontist in Aventura, Florida. Fortunately, preventing or reversing gum disease is possible in some of the early stages.
Here’s what you need to know.
Distinguishing Gum Disease Types
Periodontal disease, commonly known as gum disease, is a set of inflammatory diseases that affect the tissues, gums and bones that surround and support your teeth, Genet says. (“Periodontal” is the scientific word for gums.) These issues are caused by bacteria and can be chronic.
The first stage is gingivitis, often indicated by swelling, bleeding and other irritation of the gums. It’s fairly common and easy to reverse if your dentist says you have it. Periodontitis is a little more serious, as it consists of pockets forming within the gums as they begin to recede from the teeth. At this point bacteria can begin to decay the jawbone. Full-blown periodontal disease consists of progressive loss of bone around the teeth, which can lead to tooth loss if left untreated, Genet says.
Gum Disease Causes
The bacteria that causes gum disease occurs naturally in your mouth. According to the Mayo Clinic, a sticky film called plaque forms on teeth when the bacteria interacts with food as you chew. If it’s not removed regularly, that plaque can turn into tartar, a hard substance that traps bacteria below the gum line.
Lack of brushing and lack of regular dental care are the main causes of gum disease. And even if you do brush and floss regularly, improper technique can decrease the effectiveness and leave food and bacteria behind. Some research indicates that a lack of saliva due to stress or other ailments can aggravate gum disease.
As dire as gum disease sounds, Genet says there’s good news: “Seeking regular professional periodontal treatment, combined with good oral care at home, can reverse gum disease and help you keep your teeth forever,” he says. Most experts recommend brushing twice a day with a fluoride toothpaste and a soft-bristled toothbrush; an electric or battery brush often does a better job of removing plaque and improving technique. Aim the bristles at the gum line and brush all surfaces. Regular flossing is important as well.
Deep cleaning or medication may be needed to address serious infections. Advanced gum disease that cannot be reversed can result in tooth loss, Genet says. Bone grafting and gum surgery may also be indicated.
You can prevent gum disease and protect your health with regular dental cleanings and checkups. Brushing your teeth after meals and adding these habits to your daily routine can help, as well..