Our mouths are full of bacteria. These bacteria, along with mucus and other particles, constantly form a sticky, colorless “plaque” on teeth. Brushing and flossing help get rid of plaque. Plaque that is not removed can harden and form “tartar” that brushing doesn’t clean. Only a professional cleaning by a dentist or dental hygienist can remove tartar. Periodontal diseases range from simple gum inflammation to serious disease that results in major damage to the soft tissue and bone that support the teeth. In the worst cases, teeth are lost.
The longer plaque and tartar are on teeth, the more harmful they become. The bacteria cause inflammation of the gums that is called “gingivitis.” In gingivitis, the gums become red, swollen and can bleed easily. Gingivitis is a mild form of gum disease that can usually be reversed with daily brushing and flossing, and regular cleaning by a dentist or dental hygienist. This form of gum disease does not include any loss of bone and tissue that hold teeth in place.
When gingivitis is not treated, it can advance to “periodontitis” (which means “inflammation around the tooth.”) Periodontitis is irreversible where the gums pull away from the teeth and form spaces (called “pockets”) that become infected. The body’s immune system fights the bacteria as the plaque spreads and grows below the gum line. Bacterial toxins and the body’s natural response to infection start to break down the bone and connective tissue that hold teeth in place. If not treated, the bones, gums, and tissue that support the teeth are destroyed. The teeth may eventually become loose and have to be removed.
- Smoking – Smoking is one of the most significant risk factors associated with the development of gum disease. Additionally, smoking can lower the chances for successful treatment.
- Hormonal changes in girls/women – These changes can make gums more sensitive and make it easier for gingivitis to develop.
- Diabetes – People with diabetes are at higher risk for developing infections, including gum disease.
- Medications – There are hundreds of prescription and over the counter medications that can reduce the flow of saliva, which has a protective effect on the mouth. Without enough saliva, the mouth is vulnerable to infections such as gum disease. And some medications can cause abnormal overgrowth of the gum tissue; this can make it difficult to keep gums clean.
- Illnesses – Diseases like cancer or AIDS and their treatments can also negatively affect the health of gums.
- Genetic susceptibility – Some people are more prone to severe gum disease than others.