How do you know if gum disease may threaten your heart health? While the connection isn't yet proven beyond a doubt, plenty of evidence points to dental disorders such as periodontal disease (disease of the gums and bones that support the teeth) and gum disease (also called gingivitis) having something to do with heart disease. Until researchers are sure, the best defense is to adopt good oral health habits and be on the lookout for problems with your teeth and gums.
"Healthy gums are firm, light pink, and very elastic," says periodontist Sally Cram, DDS, a spokeswoman for the American Dental Association. So if that description doesn't fit the gums in your mouth, it's time for a checkup. Watch for these symptoms of gum disease:
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Gingivitis. This early stage of gum disease develops when bacteria build up in the gap between the gums and a tooth. Symptoms may be mild, but you might notice some redness, swelling, or bleeding. The only treatments you usually need are improved brushing and flossing habits.
Periodontitis. This is a more advanced form of gum disease, when the infection has gone deeper. The bacteria release toxins that make the surrounding tissue swell and infected pockets form between the teeth and gums. Over time, the infection can damage the bone beneath the gums, causing the gums to recede from the teeth.
Pericoronitis. This condition can happen when the wisdom teeth only partly push up through the gums, creating an opening for food or plaque to lodge under a flap of gum around the tooth. The tissue becomes swollen, painful, and infected. If the pericoronitis is severe, the swelling can move to the cheeks and neck.
Cavities. Cavities, tiny holes in the teeth caused by tooth decay, are also caused by bacteria, but by a different sort of bacteria than the ones that cause gum disease. Cavities can still play a role in gum disease. For instance, if you have a cavity that irritates the gum, it can lead to gingivitis or periodontitis.
Other dental and periodontal problems. Abscesses, missing teeth, and many other problems can directly or indirectly irritate the gums and lead to infection.