Healthy Gums: How to Prevent and Treat Gum Disease


Gum disease (or periodontal disease) is when the tissue surrounding our teeth is damaged by plaque and tartar build up. In advanced stages, the gums become so deteriorated that tooth loss may occur.

Gum disease is caused by naturally occurring bacteria in our mouths. These bacteria produce a coating on our teeth, called plaque, that gets under the gum line. If not removed, plaque hardens into tartar. Tartar cannot be removed by brushing at home. Your dentist needs to scrape this stuff off.

The first stage of gum disease is called gingivitis. Gingivitis is when the gums become inflamed; they turn red, swell up, and may bleed. The longer the plaque stays trapped, the worse it gets. As the body's immune system attacks the bacteria, plaque, and tartar, it also damages the tissue and bone surrounding the teeth. When this happens, it's called periodontitis (advanced gum disease). As the gums recede, more bacteria gets trapped, exacerbating the damage. (See also: Will a Dental Discount Plan Save You Money?)

How to Avoid Gum Disease

Fortunately, gum disease can be prevented through some easy and inexpensive efforts.

1. Get Rid of Plaque (and the Plaque-Causing Bacteria)

Your goal is to make your mouth as inhospitable as possible to the bacteria that produce plaque. To accomplish this, eliminate both the bacteria and the food it thrives on.

  • Brush often. When you feed yourself, you're also feeding the natural bacteria that cause plaque. If you can, brush after every meal.
  • Floss daily. Brushing doesn't get between the gums and teeth, so flossing is, unfortunately, a necessary evil for getting rid of the troublesome plaque. If you don't floss everyday, then the once or twice yearly visits to the dentist will be that much more painful (because she'll have to scrape the crud off).
  • Use mouthwash. If you can't brush after every meal, rinsing with a mouthwash can help.

2. Quit Smoking

According to the NIH and my dentist, smoking is a leading cause of gum disease. They should put that warning on cigarettes — forget lung cancer, bleeding gums and sensitive teeth are the real reasons to not smoke.

How to Reverse Gum Disease

If it's beyond the preventative stage, see your dentist. Unfortunately, there isn't a home remedy for established gum disease.

Your dentist will do a deep cleaning, which involves scaling (scraping off the tartar) and root planing (smoothing out rough spots on the tooth where bacteria tends to gather). The more tartar has built up, the more uncomfortable the procedure.

For serious cases, your dentist may prescribe medication to fight the bacteria and/or the bacteria's effects. Medication can come as mouthwash, pills, or gels, as well as in other forms.

In very serious cases where there is extensive bone or tissue loss, surgery may be required.

To learn more, including additional risk factors and more information about treatments for gum disease, see this very helpful and easy-to-understand article on gum disease from the NIH.

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Meg Favreau's picture

Even though I brush and floss, I'm definitely guilty of thinking of oral hygiene as being totally tooth-based. It's good to have a reminder that there's more in my mouth I need to be aware of!