Teeth are usually our foremost concern when it comes to dental health. As long as our smile looks okay and we’re not experiencing pain, we’re usually happy.
Gums play an important role in dental structure, and like teeth, need to be well-cared for in order to prevent short and long-term health problems.
Gums are a soft tissue that bind to teeth and underlying bone in the mouth. They provide a seal around teeth protecting them from bacterial tooth damage.
When gums are unhealthy (in cases of gingivitis or more severe gum disease, like periodontitis), deep pockets can develop between the teeth and gums allowing for bacterial accumulation in areas we cannot clean easily at home.This bacteria risks damaging not only the roots of teeth but the bone that these teeth are planted in.. In essence, the gums are no longer functioning as a seal. If left undiagnosed and untreated, in severe cases, teeth lose structures that keep them firmly in place and as a result, teeth may loosen over time and eventually be lost..
Causes for gum disease
There are a number of potential causes and factors that can leave us at risk of gum disease. These include:
- Poor diet. An unbalanced diet, high in sugar and lacking in vital nutrients can heighten the risk of poor gum health. Vitamins and minerals are essential in growing and maintaining healthy gum tissue. Too much sugar encourages plaque growth, which attacks teeth and degrades gums. Improving diet is key in improving gum health.
- Poor dental hygiene. If teeth are not effectively cleaned at home, dental plaque builds on teeth and gums. The bacteria in the plaque contains acids that damage both the tooth enamel and gums. Regular brushing and flossing removes this sticky dental plaque before it has a chance to harden and do further damage. Regular dental visits ensure that more stubborn plaque is identified and removed, before it has the chance to potentially cause gum disease.
- Hormonal changes such as those that occur during puberty, pregnancy, and menopause are believed to make gums especially susceptible to disease. Extra care of the gums is required during these periods.
- Genetics may play a role in gum disease. If you have a family history of gum disease, you may be more susceptible to developing gum problems.
- Smoking can lead to a decrease in blood flow in the mouth, which can weaken gum tissue and reduce healing rates.
- Alcohol can dry out the mouth. A reduction in saliva creates an environment where bacteria easily grows, and gums are damaged. Alcohol can also impact the microbiome of the mouth and kill off some of the good bacteria, meaning the bad bacteria has a prime environment in which to flourish (this also applies to alcohol-based mouthwashes.)
- Medications such as antidepressants and antihistamines can dry out the mouth in a similar way to alcohol. Some medications can also cause abnormal gum growth.
- Illicit drugs can damage gums by drying the mouth and reducing blood flow to mouth tissues, which impacts healing. Also, drug effects can mask gum pain, which means problems may fester unnoticed. Regular drug users may also exercise less self-care, and not clean their teeth as often as they should.
- Illnesses such as diabetes, HIV, or cancer can make gum tissue very weak. When the body’s immunity is low, it is less able to fight off simple infections, and gum disease can develop.
- Auto-immune disease link. There is a link between periodontitis and auto-immune disorders, like arthritis. Often these conditions accompany each other, and some consider periodontitis to be an auto-immune disease in itself. In the midst of the body fighting toxins in the gums, the body produces enzymes that attack bone and connective tissue. So, while trying to fight infection, the body attacks itself. This is thought to be why some people develop chronic and hard to treat gum disease. Regardless of how often they clean and floss their teeth, the body’s process of attacking itself means the disease progresses.
- Emotional stress. It has been found that stress can impact gum health. When we are stressed, the immune system is suppressed, and we can’t effectively fight infection. See this article of the impact of emotional stress on gum health: Emotional Stress Could Cause Periodontal Disease.1
Indicators of unhealthy gums
- Gum pain. Your gums may feel tender when you run your tongue over them, when you brush or floss, or when you bite into food.
- Bleeding. Your gums may bleed when you brush, floss, or eat.
- Misshapen gums or sores in the mouth. You may notice growths on the gum tissue.
- Bad breath. If you suffer from chronic bad breath,gum disease could be a factor.
- Loose teeth. If your teeth are loose, this may indicate chronic gum disease, and you should see a dentist as soon as possible. (Note, gum disease is not the only cause for teeth becoming loose, so you should see a doctor about this issue, to rule out other causes.)
- Swollen or red gums. If your gums appear swollen, or appear to be very red, as opposed to a healthy pink, it’s an indication you may be suffering from either gingivitis or periodontitis.
- Receding gums. If your gums are receding and you are seeing more of your teeth than you should, it’s likely your gums are breaking down and receding. Sensitivity can also be an indication of receding gums. Recession can also cause sensitivity when eating and drinking cold things.
- Extra space between your teeth. If your teeth feel different and you notice extra spacing between your teeth, it may be a result of gum degradation.
Effective gum care
Proper dental hygiene is vital for your gum health. Here are some tips to ensure you’re not ignoring your gums.
- Clean your teeth at least twice daily. After every meal is even better. Focus on the gums as well as the teeth.
- Electric toothbrushes are ideal for keeping gums clean, as you can easily angle them to clean both teeth and gums effectively.
- Use a soft brush head, and light pressure when you clean, so as not to damage gum tissue.
- Clean all surfaces of your teeth, and ensure you direct the brush towards the gum line during your clean, so that you clean the gum line.
- Change your brush head every 3-4 months.
- Use floss or interdental brushes with each clean.
It’s important to get food out from between teeth, particularly close to the gums. If using floss, drag it between the teeth, right down to the gums. You can even slide the floss a little into the pockets between your gums and teeth, but ensure you don’t use a strong downward pressure, as you don’t want to increase the size of the pockets.
Interdental brushes can be trickier to use than floss, but they provide a more effective clean, as they more easily manoeuvre around the contours of the teeth. For best results, choose interdental brushes, or a combination of floss and brushes.
- Maintain a healthy, well-balanced diet, and avoid sugars as much as possible.
- Keep stress at a minimum. Regular exercise, meditation, and finding effective actions to deal with stressors, are all effective ways to reduce stress.
Treatment for gum issues
Visit your dentist and oral health therapist if you have any concerns about the health of your gums. They can identify potential gum issues, and may perform an X-ray to check for gum damage. If required, you may be referred to a periodontist.
A periodontist measures the depth of the pockets in the gums and assesses how far damage has progressed. They may do a deep clean of dental pockets, where they scrape plaque out. This is usually under a local anaesthetic. In some cases, antibiotics may be prescribed.
Regular periodontal treatments, spaced approximately three months apart, may be needed until the problem improves and is stable. In cases of chronic periodontitis, patients may need to see a periodontist for regular maintenance over years, and surgery may be required.
Note, periodontists treat your gums only. You still need to visit your dentist at intervals to receive your regular dental cleans.
The dentists at Beachside Complete Dental Care on the Mornington Peninsula will help you with any concerns about your teeth or gums. The majority of gum concerns and issues can be treated and managed at our clinic, however if referral is required, our dual-care approach will ensure the best outcome for our patients.
1Retrieved 17 Dec 2019 from article: ‘Emotional Stress Could Cause Periodontal Disease’, Academy of General Dentistry website, published 16 Dec 2019.