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    What you need to know about gum disease

    Preventing infection in your mouth is key to maintaining your overall health.

    When you brush or clean in between your teeth, you notice your gums bleed. A little blood is no big deal, right? Wrong! Bleeding is the first sign of gum disease, an infection caused by bacteria. If you wash your hands and they started to bleed, you’d be concerned. The same thing goes for your mouth.  

    So what’s the difference between the different types of gum disease? What can you do to prevent infection in your mouth? Why does it matter if your mouth is infected? For the answers to these and other questions, read on!

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    What is gingivitis?

    Gingivitis is inflammation of your gums. Signs of inflammation include swelling of the gum tissue, bleeding, tenderness, bad breath and gums that look bright red in color instead of a healthy, pale pink. Inflammation is caused by the body’s response to a bacterial infection, most often caused by poor, or less than thorough, oral hygiene. Breaking it down a bit, the fuzzy feeling you get on your teeth is plaque and is full of live and dead bacteria and its toxic byproducts. As this bacteria eats sugar and starches (that you eat), it excretes acidic toxins. You read that right -- bacteria poops acidic toxins in your mouth. These toxins irritate your gums and cause infection. These same toxins are what cause cavities. Yes, cavities (decay) in your teeth are a bacterial infection. 

    Related reading: New gingivitis code helps you provide ethical care

    If this bacteria/plaque isn’t thoroughly removed, your body’s immune system can’t fight the infection. However, your body will try and inflammation will occur. Inflammation, especially chronic inflammation, anywhere in your body is not good. It’s worth writing again, inflammation is not good!

    Also, if left for too long, plaque can harden into calculus (tartar). Brushing and cleaning in between your teeth cannot remove calculus, like it can disrupt plaque. A dental hygienist with specialized instruments and training can only remove it at this point.

    Besides a lack in oral hygiene, other risk factors for gingivitis include mouth breathing while sleeping, dry mouth, which many medications can cause, smoking and poor nutrition. Poor fitting dental restorations and crooked teeth can cause nooks and crannies for bacteria to hide, which can lead to gingivitis. Hormonal changes and medical conditions can also lower the body’s immunity to fight infection, including gingivitis.

    Gingivitis is the earliest stage of periodontal (gum) disease. If gingivitis goes unchecked it can progress to a more severe form of gum disease called periodontitis.

    What is periodontitis?

    The longer bacteria go undisturbed and unremoved by brushing and cleaning in between your teeth, the more virulent or strong the bacteria gets. This can lead to more than gingivitis, which only affects your gums. In your body’s fight against this bacteria, the tissue holding in your teeth (for instance, connective tissue and bone) begins to break down. This tissue cannot grow back. If left unchecked and the infection continues, you are simply left without the supporting structures that hold your teeth in, like bone and ligaments, and your teeth may need to be extracted.

    When bone, ligaments, gums and supporting structures of teeth begin to break down, this is periodontitis. When your gums and supporting structures start to break down, a pocket is created around your tooth where a toothbrush, floss or other homecare aides cannot clean as well. When your gums break down it can also cause them to recede, exposing the roots of teeth. The roots of teeth are not covered or protected by strong enamel. They are covered by cementum, which is softer, so tooth sensitivity can become a problem and the exposed roots can decay (get cavities) easier.

    Like with gingivitis, dental hygienists have specialized instruments and training to remove this bacteria.

    Up next: Can gum disease be reversed?

    Kara Vavrosky, RDH
    Kara Vavrosky, RDH is an Editorial Director at Modern Hygienist, a part of the Modern Dental Network. She is best known for running the ...

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