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Gums protect and support your pearly whites and the tissue that holds them to the bone. When your gums aren’t healthy, you risk losing those teeth -- and damaging your overall health.

How Gum Disease Happens

“Gum disease usually starts in areas that you’re not brushing or keeping clean,” says Mark Ryder, DMD. He’s chair of the division of periodontology at the University of California, San Francisco School of Dentistry. “Bacteria build up in a film on your teeth and you get a reaction to that bacteria -- inflammation.”

Inflammation, or swelling of the gums (also known as gingivitis), can be one of the first warning signs of gum disease. Other symptoms include:

  • gum redness
  • bleeding while brushing or flossing
  • receding gum line
  • loose teeth
  • constant bad breath
  • mouth sores

Pain isn’t one of the first symptoms of gingivitis. “What’s unique about early gum disease is that it doesn’t cause much discomfort at all,” Ryder says. “So you really have to pay attention to these other symptoms.”

If you don’t treat gingivitis, gum problems can get worse. “Infection and inflammation will spread deeper into the tissues that support the tooth,” Ryder says. “When that happens, the inflammation becomes destructive.”

The gums begin to pull away from the teeth, which lets in more bacteria. At this stage, gum disease is called periodontitis.

“Periodontitis causes the tissues and bone that support the teeth to break down,” Ryder says. This creates pockets where bacteria can grow.

“As you lose bone, your teeth get looser and looser, and eventually, they fall out,” he says. What’s more, oral health affects your whole body's health. Studies have shown that people with gum disease are more likely to get heart disease and less able to control their blood sugar.