Gum Disease (Gingivitis)

Gingivitis is a mild form of gum disease that causes inflammation and bleeding. Untreated, it can lead to periodontitis, a far more serious condition.

What is it?

If your gums are swollen, tender and bleed easily when you brush your teeth, you're not alone — nearly 80 percent of American adults have some form of gum (periodontal) disease. One of the most common of these is gingivitis, which develops when bacteria build up between your teeth and gums, leading to irritation, inflammation and bleeding. If not treated, it can progress to more serious gum diseases such as periodontitis and eventually to the destruction of bone and to tooth loss.

Yet gingivitis is both preventable and treatable. Although factors such as medications and lowered immunity make you more susceptible to gingivitis, the most common cause is poor oral hygiene. Daily brushing and flossing and regular professional cleanings can significantly reduce your risk of developing this potentially serious condition. If you already have gingivitis, professional cleaning can reverse the damage.

What causes it?

Gingivitis begins with plaque. This invisible, sticky film, composed primarily of bacteria, forms on your teeth when starches and sugars in food interact with bacteria normally found in your mouth. Brushing your teeth removes plaque, but it re-forms quickly, usually within 24 hours.

Plaque that stays on your teeth longer than two or three days can harden under your gumline into tartar (calculus), a white substance that makes plaque more difficult to remove and that acts as a reservoir for bacteria. What's more, you usually can't get rid of tartar by brushing and flossing – you'll need a professional cleaning to remove it.

The longer plaque and tartar remain on your teeth, the more they irritate the gingiva, the part of your gum around the base of your teeth. In time, your gums become swollen and bleed easily.

Although plaque is by far the most common cause of gingivitis, other factors can contribute to or aggravate the condition, including:

  • Drugs.
  • Viral and fungal infections.
  • Other diseases and conditions.
  • Hormonal changes.
  • Poor nutrition.

What are the symptoms?

  • Swollen, soft, red gums.
  • Gums that bleed easily, even if they're not sore.
  • A change in the color of your gums from a healthy pink to dusky red.

Are there any natural therapies?

Because nutrition plays a major role in oral health, many complementary and alternative therapies focus on supplying your body with certain nutrients. Some of these include Coenzyme Q10, which occurs naturally in the body and in a wide variety of foods, and plays a key role in the production of cellular energy. CQ 10 applied to the pockets of the diseased gum tissue appears to reduce infection, but no studies have measured the effectiveness of oral CQ 10. Vitamin C is a potent antioxidant and major player in the synthesis of collagen, making vitamin C essential for healthy gums. Grapefruit seed extract has proven to have antibiotic qualities. Some people suggest adding a drop to your regular toothpaste every time you brush. Cranberries have long been known as a treatment for urinary infection, as cranberries and cranberry juice work by prevening bacteria for adhering to cells that line the bladder. Now it appears that cranberries may also keep bacteria from sticking to your teeth and gums. Look out for cranberry products with no added sugar or sweeteners.

What else can I do?

The best way to prevent gingivitis is a program of good dental hygiene, one that you begin early and practice consistently throughout life. That means brushing your teeth at least twice daily — in the morning and before going to bed — and flossing at least once a day. Better yet, brush after every meal or snack or as your dentist recommends. A complete cleaning with a toothbrush and floss should take three to five minutes. Flossing before you brush allows you to clean away the loosened food particles and bacteria.

Did you know?

Untreated gingivitis can progress to periodontitis, a much more serious form of gum disease. Periodontitis can cause tooth loss and may even increase your risk of heart attack and stroke. What's more, women with periodontitis are far more likely to give birth to premature babies than women with healthy gums are.