Gum disease is fairly common, and most UK adults will have at least one episode during their lives. It's more common in smokers, in older people, and in people who have diabetes.
Most of us know that healthy gums are vital to help keep our teeth strong and healthy too. However, gum health can affect not just our mouths, but our whole body. If left untreated, gum disease may increase our risk of developing serious health problems, including stroke and heart disease.
What causes gum disease?
Gum disease is caused by the build-up of excess plaque on our teeth. Plaque is the sticky substance that accumulates on our teeth after eating. It's formed when saliva combines with the bacteria that are naturally present in our mouths.
When we eat a lot of sugary or starchy food, the bacteria in plaque produce acid which damages teeth leading to tooth decay.
Plaque is removed by regular brushing and flossing. When we don't brush or floss often enough, the bacteria present in plaque can build up to high levels. They can then make our gums sore and irritated, causing the symptoms of gum disease.
Plaque that's left behind on our teeth for a long time can build up and form a hard substance called tartar. Tartar is much more difficult to remove than plaque. If you have tartar, you'll generally need a dentist or dental hygienist to remove it.
What healthy gums look like
Healthy gums are pale pink, firm and hold the teeth securely in place.
They shouldn't be red, swollen or painful. They shouldn't bleed when brushing your teeth, or when you touch them.
The early symptoms of gum disease aren't always easy to spot. For this reason, it's important to have regular dental check-ups. Your dentist will check your gums, and ensure any early signs of gum disease are treated promptly.
Early symptoms of gum disease (gingivitis)
Gingivitis is the early stage of gum disease.
You may find your gums look or feel swollen or reddened, and they may bleed when you brush or floss your teeth. Your dentist may also notice signs of gum disease during a check-up.
More advanced symptoms of gum disease (periodontitis)
Periodontitis is when the bacteria causing your gum disease begin to affect the bones and surrounding tissue.
In addition to the earlier symptoms, you may notice an unpleasant taste in your mouth and you may notice that your breath smells (halitosis). Your teeth might feel loose in your gums, and you may develop gum abscesses, which can be extremely painful.
Treating gum disease
For early gum disease, the best treatment is to practice good oral hygiene.
- Brush your teeth using a fluoride-containing toothpaste for at least two minutes, twice a day – once at night before bed, and once more at some point during the day (most people choose first thing in the morning). Some people find an electric toothbrush makes it easier to clean their teeth thoroughly.
- An antiseptic mouthwash containing chlorhexidine can also help to stop bacteria building up in the mouth.
- Ask your dentist whether this is suitable for you and if so, how and when to use this to ensure it works most effectively.
- You should also floss regularly, have regular dental check ups and, if you smoke, quit smoking.
- Your dentist may also recommend a scale and polish. Plaque and tartar are scraped away from your teeth, and they're then polished to remove any stains. This is usually carried out by a dental hygienist.
- For more advanced gum disease, your dentist may need to clean under your gums to get rid of any bacteria. This is called root planing or debridement.
- Your dentist may also prescribe antibiotics to help get rid of any infection. If your gum disease is very advanced, you may need surgical treatment, but this is very rare.
Preventing gum disease
There's a lot you can do to reduce your risk of developing gum disease:
• Have a good oral hygiene routine. Brush your teeth for at least two minutes, twice a day
• Use a fluoride-containing toothpaste. Fluoride has been shown to help prevent the growth of the bacteria that cause gum disease and tooth decay. Different amounts of fluoride are recommended for children and adults, so choose a toothpaste that's appropriate for you. If you're not sure, your dentist or pharmacist can advise you
• Floss your teeth at least once a day, preferably before brushing
• If you have gum disease, mouthwashes containing chlorhexidine or hexetidine may help. Your dentist may recommend using one and can advise on which might be suitable for you
• Smoking is a big risk factor for developing gum disease. If you're ready to quit smoking, your pharmacist, dentist or GP can offer support to help you succeed
• Visit your dentist for regular check-ups. Your dentist can often spot the early signs of gum disease and other tooth problems, and can offer advice or treatment to help
If you find oral hygiene difficult for any reason, see your dentist – they will want to help, and won't judge you for any problems you might be having. They can give you advice and support to improve the health of your mouth.
How often should I have a dental check-up?
Your dentist can advise how often you should have a check-up. They know your oral health best, and can recommend the most appropriate schedule for you. Generally speaking, adults with good oral hygiene and good overall health, who have not had gum disease in the past, should be checked by their dentist every one to two years.
Your dentist may advise more regular check-ups if:
• You've had a past episode of gum disease
• You're a smoker
• You have diabetes
• You're an older person
• You have a weakened immune system (for example, if you are having chemotherapy, or are HIV positive)
• They want to monitor you more closely for any reason
• A good oral hygiene routine is the best way to prevent and manage gum disease. Brush your teeth for at least two minutes, twice a day, using a suitable fluoride-containing toothpaste
• If you find oral hygiene difficult for any reason, see your dentist for advice. They are there to help, and can help you improve the health of your mouth for the future
• If you notice you have symptoms of gum disease, make an appointment to see your dentist