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

How Gum Disease Happens

It "usually starts in areas that you’re not brushing or keeping clean,” says Mark Ryder, DMD, chair 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.”

Swelling of the gums (also known as gingivitis), can be one of the first 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.”

Gum problems can get worse if you don’t get gingivitis treated.

“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.

That condition "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. People with gum disease are more likely to get heart disease and are less able to control their blood sugar, studies show.

The CDC found that 47% of adults older than 30 have periodontitis. After age 65, that number goes up to 70%.

Your odds of getting gum disease are higher if you:

  • Use tobacco products
  • Are pregnant
  • Have a family history of gum disease
  • Have diabetes
  • Have high stress
  • Grind or clench your teeth

Some birth control, antidepressants, and heart medicines may also raise your risk. Tell your dentist about any medications you take regularly.

“Stop smoking, manage diabetes correctly, and if you’re pregnant, think about visiting the dentist more often during your pregnancy,” Ryder says.