The Signs of Gum Disease: How to Prevent and Treat It

According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), four to twelve percent of Americans have some form of periodontal (gum) disease. Like many other diseases, this is largely preventable. Yet a quarter of the population over the age of 65 has lost all of their teeth, primarily to gum disease. Most people are unaware of the significant health risks associated with this disease. Some of these may include low birth weight, heart disease, diabetes and stroke. Thus, it is imperative to recognize some of the signs of gum disease.

Early Indicators

Knowing a person's risk factor for periodontal disease is a partial early indicator. For example, the mere fact that somebody smokes cigarettes is a harbinger of infection. According to the CDC, "half of the cases of severe gum disease…are the result of cigarette smoking." Other risk factors include having a genetic predisposition, certain illnesses such as cancer and diabetes, taking mouth-drying medications (proper saliva flow is critical) and hormonal female changes resulting in susceptible gums.

Gingivitis, an inflammatory disease, is an early form of periodontal disease. Redness, soreness and the swelling of the gums are the most common indicators. A person's sour breath means they likely have gingivitis. Considered mild, gingivitis is easy to treat. The way to treat gum disease at this point is the same as the best preventative — daily brushing and flossing of the teeth and routine professional dental hygiene.

Periodontitis

If left untreated, gingivitis leads to periodontitis, a much more severe form of gum disease. Periodontitis means the inflammation concentrates around a specific tooth or teeth. This creates pockets within the gum under and around the tooth. These pockets become breeding grounds for bacterial warfare between your body's immune system and the bacteria. The result is destruction to any surrounding connective tissue and bones. Left untreated, teeth become loose and eventually need to be replaced.

The early signs of advanced disease are the same as those for gingivitis, only much worse. The best mouthwash might temporarily mask the smell of gingivitis, but this will not be effective for more advanced gum disease. Beyond the red and swollen gums of gingivitis, periodontitis can cause painful chewing and overly sensitive teeth, both of which affect a person's diet. Also, teeth appear longer as gums recede. Additionally, teeth can become so loose that they break off easily and fall out.

How to Treat Gum Disease

As mentioned earlier, the best treatment begins with good preventative habits. If the disease has advanced far enough, only professional intervention will be effective enough. Some of the things to expect include a dental hygienist performing X-rays and thoroughly cleaning the teeth and gums, as well as a dentist prescribing antibiotics, anti-inflammatory drugs or even steroids. Your dentist may refer you to a periodontist, a doctor who specializes in treating gum disease. In some cases, surgery is required to open up the pockets for a more intense cleaning. Surgically implanting grafts can sometimes restore damaged bone.

Proper oral hygiene is the best way to prevent surgery and other treatments. Remaining vigilant to the early signs of gum disease and aggressively combating it are the best ways to spare your teeth from the threat of periodontal disease.

Photo Source: Flickr

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Tags: Dental, Dental Assisting, dental hygiene, healthcare, Healthcare and Medical, patient care

Charles R. Hooper, MSW

About Charles R. Hooper, MSW

With over 20 years experience as a medical social worker and a master's degree in social work from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, I have been honored to dedicate most of my professional life to service in health care. I have worked in multiple medical/nursing settings, including cardiology, orthopedics, neurology, trauma care and others. I also founded the medical social work program at a regional trauma center and a very busy emergency department. View all posts by Charles R. Hooper, MSW →