What is gingivitis? Put simply, it is swelling, inflammation or infection of the gums and the other tissues that hold the teeth in place.
Gingivitis is also known as early gum disease, with more advanced stages termed periodontal disease:
- Gingivitis – This is inflamed gum tissue around the teeth, caused by dental plaque (that sticky white paste that builds up – also responsible for cavities). Healthy gums are generally coral-pink on color and firmly attached to the teeth. Diseased, they are deep red and swollen. The first sign of gingivitis may be bleeding during brushing and the gums may be tender to touch. This is a reversible condition that can be improved and prevented by ensuring good dental hygiene.
- Periodontal disease – This is a more severe form of the condition. Periodontitis implies that the bone and other foundations that hold the teeth in place are stripping away. If left untreated, teeth are at risk of becoming loose and eventually may fall out. See a detailed article on periodontal treatment here.
Gum disease is a common dental problem. Nearly 3 out of 4 people over the age of 35 have it to some degree. Periodontal disease is the most common reason for tooth loss in adults.
“What Causes These Problems?”
The main overall cause is dental plaque (which can be cleaned off at home) and tartar (which can only be removed professionally). Plaque and tartar contain the bacteria which causes gum disease (and tooth decay). Therefore inadequate oral hygiene is the major cause.Some other factors which may lead to an increased risk of gum disease include:
- Smoking. This will not only greatly increase the risk of developing problems, but also increase the severity and rate of tissue destruction.
- Poorly-controlled diabetes.
- Certain medications including contraceptive pills, steroids, anti-epileptic drugs, immune-suppressants.
- Age; the risk of problems increases as you get older.
Note that gingivitis and periodontitis not contagious as such. The problem is not spread from one person to another. It is caused by bacteria, and these micro-organisms can be spread, e.g. by using someone else’s toothbrush. But the disease process is more complicated than one that can be caused by bacterial spread. Still, don’t share toothbrushes!
The Symptoms To Watch For
The symptoms will vary – Sometimes you may not notice any gingivitis symptoms and so be totally unaware that you have a problem. It can be a ‘hidden’ condition that only your dentist can detect.
Symptoms may include:
- Bleeding when brushing your teeth is a common warning sign
- Your gums appear red and swollen.
- Your teeth become more sensitive to cold or hot food and drinks.
- A bad taste in your mouth.
- Bad breath (halitosis)- caused by plaque bacteria producing unpleasant odors!
- Gingival recession and teeth appearing to be ‘longer’.
- Loose teeth.
- Regular mouth infections.
Gum problems usually develop painlessly, so often you are not aware of the damage being done. Where has been severe tissue loss, one may get acute periodontal abscesses, and pus may ooze out. A very acute and painful condition known as acute ulcerative gingivitis (“trench mouth”) can occur especially in our teens and twenties.
Further reading: The top 10 common symptoms of gum disease.
Gum Diseases and Your Health
It is becoming increasingly clear that these conditions can make general health problems worse. Such problems that we know about are:
- Heart disease.
- Diabetes (see this article).
- Premature childbirth and lower weight babies. Gum conditions may increase the chances of a baby being born prematurely. See more in our article on gum disease in pregnancy.
- Lung disease.
A lot of research is on-going into the link between these conditions and health problems. There is little doubt that having healthy gums is important with respect to an increasing number of health problems.
What is gingivitis? You have seen that there are two main types of gum disease: gingivitis (reversible, treatable inflammation of the gums) and periodontitis (which is more advanced and severe). These problems can also be damaging to our health.
See the article on gingivitis treatment next (where you will read that what you do at home in terms of your oral hygiene routine is key to prevention)