Like a lot of people, Susan Karcz didn’t often think about her gums. “People tend to pay more attention to teeth,” she says. “You can see them, for one thing.” Gum graft surgery changed her focus. The procedure involved removing tissue from the roof of Karcz’s mouth and grafting it onto the front of her lower jaw, an experience she does not want to repeat.
White, sparkling teeth are not the only sign of a healthy mouth. Your gums are a barrier that helps prevent inflammation that may damage your body. In fact, gum disease has been linked to health problems such as diabetes, heart disease, stroke, and premature births or low-birth weight babies.
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The good news? With daily brushing and flossing, and regular check-ups, most people can prevent gum disease. Here are answers to top questions about gum disease.
What is gum disease?
Pamela Quinones, RDH, president of the American Dental Hygienists’ Association, wishes that more people paid attention to their gums. “Most people go to the dentist because they’re worried about cavities,” Quinones tells WebMD. “But once you reach a certain age, gum disease is a more important concern.”
Just as your skin protects your muscles, bones, and major organs, your gums protect your teeth and the structures that hold them in place. Gum disease, also known as periodontal disease, starts when plaque, made up of bacteria, mucus, and food particles, invades the small space between your gums and teeth. If left to fester, your gums can become infected, putting them and your teeth at risk. If gum disease progresses, it becomes increasingly difficult, painful, and expensive to treat.
What are the stages of gum disease?
Gingivitis is the earliest stage of gum disease. At this stage, gums become red and inflamed and may bleed easily. Gingivitis can usually be turned around with a regimen of daily brushing and flossing, along with regular dental check-ups and cleanings -- but it does need to be caught early. “Gingivitis is reversible. Periodontitis usually has to have some sort of intervention,” says Quinones.
Periodontitis is a more serious stage of gum disease that can seriously damage the gums and structures that support the teeth. One of the hallmarks of periodontitis is pockets that form when gums pull away from the teeth. The bone and ligament that support the tooth start to break down and over time, the tooth becomes loose in its socket. Without treatment, the tooth could eventually have to be removed.
Besides what it does to the mouth, gum disease has been linked to conditions such as diabetes, heart disease, stroke, and premature births or low birth weight. According to Sally Cram, DDS, PC, consumer advisor for the American Dental Association, emerging research pinpoints inflammation. “They’re finding the role of inflammation in the body is very critical to a lot of these different diseases,” Cram tells WebMD. “And that’s essentially what gum disease is: infection and inflammation in the oral cavity.”