What Is a Periodontist?

Medically Reviewed by Dan Brennan, MD on July 18, 2023
5 min read

A periodontist is a specialist who treats issues that affect your gums and the bones in your mouth.

A periodontist is a dentist who specializes in preventing, diagnosing, and treating gum disease. They also help you manage signs of advancing gum problems like oral inflammation. 

Gum disease happens when the tissue around your teeth gets infected, causing inflammation. Plaque-forming bacteria that build up on your teeth usually cause this swelling as it spreads below the gum line. 

The early form of gum disease is called gingivitis. You can control this condition with treatment, by keeping your mouth and teeth clean, and seeing the dentist regularly. However, more advanced gum disease -- or periodontitis -- may require more extensive treatment. That’s when you need to see a periodontist.

They’ll review your dental and medical histories. Then they’ll do a dental exam to come up with the best treatment option. This could include both surgical and nonsurgical methods:

Nonsurgical Treatments

Scaling and root planing are non-surgical treatments to remove plaque and tartar from deep under the gum line. These procedures are sometimes paired with antimicrobial or antibiotic medicines as well, depending on the case.

A periodontist could also prescribe a tray delivery system for you to wear at home. This custom-fit impression of your teeth puts prescription medication right on them. 

Surgical treatments

Gingivitis and periodontitis can cause your gums to recede, or pull back, exposing a tooth’s root. A periodontist can do a gum graft, where they take tissue, usually from the roof of your mouth, and use it to cover the receded gum line. A healthy gum line can help stop tooth decay, reduce sensitivity and pain, and improve your smile. 

Other surgical treatments a periodontist can perform include:

While some techniques are specific to treating gum disease, others are available for cosmetic purposes as well. Periodontists often offer plastic surgery services like:

  • Dental crown lengthening to fix a gummy smile or an uneven gum line
  • Gum grafts to reduce the appearance of long teeth from age-related recession or prior gum disease
  • Ridge augmentation to restore the natural curve of the gums and jaw after replacing a lost tooth with a fake, or artificial, tooth

A periodontist’s education begins with dental school. There they receive a doctor of dental surgery or doctor of medicine in dentistry degree. After graduating, the doctor continues specialized training.

The process involves completing:

  • Four years of dental school
  • A three-year residency in periodontics
  • A written and oral exam to become certified with the American Board of Periodontology

Your general dentist may be able to treat some gum problems. But if you have gum disease that’s getting worse, a complex case, or the risk of tooth loss, your dentist will refer you to a periodontist. If you notice any of these common gum disease signs and symptoms, make an appointment with your dentist to see if you should visit a periodontist. 

Swollen or puffy gums

Plaque and tartar-forming bacteria can also cause inflammation, which is often the first sign of gingivitis. When it goes untreated, this inflammation can make pockets form around your teeth. This raises your risk of infection that can lead to tooth loss

Swollen gums often make your teeth look smaller. They may be dark red rather than a healthy light pink. In the early stages, you can treat this inflammation with a deep cleaning at your dentist and taking care of your oral hygiene at home.

Gums that bleed easily 

Inflammation can also cause your gums to bleed easily when you brush, floss, or eat. See your dentist if your gums are tender to the touch, your toothbrush is tinted pink after brushing, or you spit out blood when you brush or floss.

Bad Breath

Bad breath is common and not always a cause for concern. But if you take good care of your mouth and bad breath doesn’t go away on its own, it could be a sign of infection or holes in your teeth

Painful chewing

Over time, gum inflammation can form pockets around your teeth that can loosen teeth, making them more sensitive. You might also have trouble chewing. Make an appointment with your dentist if you notice a change in the way your teeth fit together or new spaces forming between your teeth. 

Receding gum line

Receding gums are not always due to gum disease. This can also result from brushing your teeth too hard, which injures the gum tissue. A periodontist can fix this issue for cosmetic purposes, potentially lowering your risk of gum problems in the future.

Gum recession that doesn’t result from too much brushing is usually a sign of later-stage gum disease, however. At this point, a periodontist can examine the issue and advise on appropriate treatment. 

When you visit a periodontist, you should tell them about any symptoms you’re having. They may ask for personal information like health conditions and medications you take. 

The periodontist will then:

  • Review your medical history to identify any factors that could be contributing to your symptoms
  • Perform an oral exam to check for gum bleeding and look for plaque and tartar buildup
  • Measure your gum pocket depth, or the space between your gums and teeth
  • Take X-rays to check for bone loss

These tests help them create a periodontal treatment plan. Your periodontist, a dentist, or dental hygienist may all be part of your treatment. Antibiotics or a thorough cleaning can often control early stages of gum disease. More advanced cases may require surgery.

Your periodontist may also recommend lifestyle changes and at-home treatments to help keep gum disease in check and prevent further issues. You may need to: