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Do you have red, sore gums that occasionally bleed when you brush your teeth? If so, you may have gingivitis -- the mildest form of gum disease. Most people get gingivitis at some point in their lives, and mild symptoms make it easy to overlook. But that doesn't mean you can ignore sore gums. Keeping teeth and gums healthy can help prevent periodontitis, a severe type of gum disease that can lead to tooth loss. Fortunately, you can easily reverse gingivitis with proper oral care.

What Causes Gingivitis?

When you forget to brush, floss, and use a mouth rinse, you leave deposits of plaque, a sticky film of bacteria and food particles, around your teeth. Plaque releases acids that attack tooth enamel, causing decay. After 72 hours, plaque can harden into tartar, which can only be removed by your dentist. Tartar forms along the gum line, making it difficult to thoroughly clean teeth and gums. Eventually these plaque and tartar deposits irritate and inflame gums, causing gingivitis.

Can Gingivitis Lead to Severe Gum Disease?

Experts used to think that if not treated, gingivitis would eventually develop into periodontitis. But research has shown that's not necessarily the case. Whether a person develops severe gum disease partly depends on how that person's body responds to the buildup of plaque and bacteria in the mouth. Studies have shown that periodontitis may develop due to these factors:

  • Bacteria. Of more than 400 species of bacteria that live in our mouths, only about 15 can cause severe gum disease.
  • Genetics. About 30% of people may be genetically predisposed to developing gum disease.
  • Uncontrolled diabetes. Diabetes increases the risk for gum disease, possibly because people with diabetes are more prone to infection. Gum disease also makes it harder to control diabetes.
  • Smoking. According to the American Dental Association, smoking may be the cause of almost 75% of periodontal diseases.

Because there's no way to know who might develop severe periodontal disease, it's important to see your dentist if you notice any sign of gum irritation.

What Are the Symptoms of Gingivitis?

Symptoms are often so mild that you can have gingivitis and not know it. Over time you may notice:

  • Red, swollen, or purplish gums. Healthy gums should appear pink and firm.
  • Bleeding gums; you may see blood on your toothbrush or when you spit out toothpaste
  • Sore gums that are tender to the touch
  • Mouth sores

If you think you may have gingivitis, start by looking at your oral health habits to figure out where you may have slacked off a little. For example, if you haven't been flossing every day, try putting a reminder note on the bathroom mirror. 

If you can never remember which kind of mouth rinse reduces gingivitis, ask a pharmacist for help. (It’s an antimicrobial one, which you may see labeled as anti-gingivitis, antibacterial, or antiseptic.)

If it's been 6 months since your last dental appointment, call your dentist to set up a cleaning and exam. During the exam, your dentist will use special instruments to remove tartar and plaque deposits and thoroughly clean your teeth. Also, ask your dentist about the proper way to brush your teeth -- brushing too hard or missing spots can lead to gingivitis. After a cleaning, gingivitis should improve within a week or so as long as you brush twice a day, and floss and rinse once a day.

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