Gum Problem Basics: Sore, Swollen, and Bleeding Gums

When you think about dental health, the focus is likely to be on preventing cavities in your teeth. But it's important to pay attention to your gums, too. Gums play a major role not only in your dental health, but in your overall well-being.

In many instances, swollen and bleeding gums are a sign of gum disease. However, there are a number of other things that could be causing your gum problems. Whatever the cause of sore, painful gums, there are steps you can take to minimize gum damage and discomfort.

Gums and Brushing Technique

In the quest to keep teeth clean, you might be tempted to brush teeth as vigorously as you can. Gums are made of delicate tissue, though, so brushing the wrong way could damage them.

Whether you opt for a manual or electric toothbrush, choose one with soft nylon bristles that have blunted ends. Even though you can find brushes with medium or hard bristles, they may damage the enamel on your teeth or cause red and swollen gums.

When you brush, make sure you use gentle, circular motions to massage and clean the teeth and gums. While many people use a back-and-forth motion, this motion can irritate and damage your gums, making them sore and more likely to bleed or recede.

Gums and Flossing Technique

We all know the importance of flossing every day to help remove plaque from places where your toothbrush can't reach. To make sure that your healthy habit isn't causing swollen or bleeding gums, be gentle when you floss. Rather than forcing the floss between your teeth, carefully slide it up and down, following the curve of each tooth.

Gum Disease

More than three-quarters of American adults over age 35 get periodontal (gum) disease. While most people with gum disease have the less severe form, called gingivitis, between 5% and 15% have a much more serious type of gum disease known as periodontitis.

When people don't practice proper dental hygiene, bacteria in the mouth forms plaque on the teeth. These bacteria may cause your gums to become inflamed, which results in red, swollen, or bleeding gums. For many people with gingivitis, this inflammation is not painful. If you catch gingivitis early, it can be reversed and healed with proper oral hygiene. But left untreated, gingivitis can worsen and ultimately lead to tooth loss. Be sure to seek medical attention if you have the following symptoms, even if you don't have any discomfort:

  • changes in the way teeth fit together on biting, or in the fit of partial dentures
  • formation of deep pockets between teeth and gums
  • gums that bleed during and after toothbrushing
  • loose or shifting teeth
  • persistent bad breath or bad taste in the mouth
  • receding gums
  • red, swollen, or tender gums

When gingivitis progresses, it develops into periodontitis, a condition in which the gums and bone that hold the teeth in place can be severely weakened. The bacteria on the teeth release toxic substances that harm your gums and cause them to become infected. The infection and the inflammation that result when your body attacks the bacteria can degrade your gums and the bone in your jaw even further. You may have exceptionally swollen, painful gums that are likely to bleed. If left untreated, periodontitis can lead to tooth loss.

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Gums and Canker Sores

Common culprits behind painful gums are canker sores, or mouth ulcers. These painful sores can develop anywhere inside the mouth, including on the gums, and often have a whitish center with red edges. You may have one canker sore at a time, making only one area on your gums sore, or you may have multiple sores at the same time throughout your mouth.

While researchers don't know what causes canker sores, there may be bacterial or viral involvement. People with certain autoimmune diseases may also be more likely to have gum problems caused by canker sores. Canker sores often come back over time and are not contagious.

Gums and Chemotherapy

Chemotherapy can have a number of unpleasant side effects, including painful, swollen, and bleeding gums. Many people undergoing treatment for cancer contend with stomatitis, which causes the development of painful sores and ulcers on the gums and throughout the mouth.

Gums and Tobacco Products

Using cigarettes and other tobacco products can be extremely damaging to your gums. People who smoke are far more likely to develop gum disease. You may find that your smoking habit gives you a number of gum problems, from sensitive gums that bleed to painful sores.

Gums and Hormones

Some women find they have gum problems during puberty, menstruation, pregnancy, and menopause. The rise in hormones during puberty can heighten blood flow to the gums, making them red, swollen, and sensitive. For women with menstrual gingivitis, the gums become red, swollen, and more likely to bleed shortly before each menstrual period. These problems typically subside after the period begins. Pregnancy gingivitis typically starts in the second or third month of pregnancy and continues through the eighth month, causing sore, swollen, and bleeding gums. The use of oral birth control products may cause similar gum problems. Though uncommon, some women going through menopause may find that their gums become extremely dry and therefore sore and likely to bleed.

8 Tips to Prevent Sore, Swollen, and Bleeding Gums

1. Brush your teeth at least twice each day. Make sure you follow proper brushing technique. If you're not sure what to do, ask your dentist or dental hygienist for a quick lesson at your next appointment.

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2. Floss daily. It doesn't take more than a few minutes, but flossing may be the most important thing you can do to prevent gum problems now and in the future.

3. Rinse with mouthwash daily. An antiseptic mouthwash kills bacteria that cause gum disease.

4. Eat a well-balanced diet. A balanced diet, including plenty of vitamin C and calcium, may minimize the likelihood you'll have gum problems.

5. Drink plenty of water. Drinking water, especially after eating, can help wash food off your teeth and make it less likely that bacteria will form gum-damaging plaque.

6. Say no to tobacco. If you smoke cigarettes or use other tobacco products, try to quit.

7. Be cautious about extremely hot or cold foods and drinks. When you have gum problems, you may find you're more comfortable having lukewarm or cool foods and beverages.

8. Relax. Being stressed out raises levels of the stress hormone cortisol, increasing the likelihood of inflammation throughout your body, including in your gums.

WebMD Medical Reference Reviewed by Michael Friedman, DDS on November 29, 2015

Sources

SOURCES:

American Academy of Periodontology: "Gum Disease: What You Need to Know."

FDA: "Fighting gum disease: How to keep your teeth."

National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research, "Periodontal (gum) disease: Causes, Symptoms, and Treatments."

CDC: "Oral Health: Preventing cavities, gum disease and tooth loss."

University of Maryland Medical Center: "Oral Health: Brushing and toothpaste."

American Dental Association: "Common mouth sores."

American Cancer Society: "What about sore mouth, gum and throat problems?"

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