How do you know if gum disease may threaten your heart health? While the connection isn't yet proven beyond a doubt, plenty of evidence points to dental disorders such as periodontal disease (disease of the gums and bones that support the teeth) and gum disease (also called gingivitis) having something to do with heart disease. Until researchers are sure, the best defense is to adopt good oral health habits and be on the lookout for problems with your teeth and gums.
"Healthy gums are firm, light pink, and very elastic," says periodontist Sally Cram, DDS, a spokeswoman for the American Dental Association. So if that description doesn't fit the gums in your mouth, it's time for a checkup. Watch for these symptoms of gum disease:
- Red, swollen gums
- Bleeding after you floss or brush
- Receding gums or noticing that you seem to see more of a tooth than you used to
- Pus on the gums
- Pain when you bite or chew
- Loose teeth
Some people are genetically more prone to periodontal and gum disease than others. So if it runs in your family, you should be especially vigilant. Get any symptoms checked out right away.
Specific conditions that might be related to heart disease are:
- Gingivitis. This early stage of gum disease develops when bacteria build up in the gap between the gums and a tooth. Symptoms may be mild, but you might notice some redness, swelling, or bleeding. The only treatments you usually need are improved brushing and flossing habits.
- Periodontitis. This is a more advanced form of gum disease, when the infection has gone deeper. The bacteria release toxins that make the surrounding tissue swell and infected pockets form between the teeth and gums. Over time, the infection can damage the bone beneath the gums, causing the gums to recede from the teeth.
- Pericoronitis. This condition can happen when the wisdom teeth only partly push up through the gums, creating an opening for food or plaque to lodge under a flap of gum around the tooth. The tissue becomes swollen, painful, and infected. If the pericoronitis is severe, the swelling can move to the cheeks and neck.
- Cavities. Cavities, tiny holes in the teeth caused by tooth decay, are also caused by bacteria, but by a different sort of bacteria than the ones that cause gum disease. Cavities can still play a role in gum disease. For instance, if you have a cavity that irritates the gum, it can lead to gingivitis or periodontitis.
- Other dental and periodontal problems. Abscesses, missing teeth, and many other problems can directly or indirectly irritate the gums and lead to infection.
Other conditions and problems can increase your risk of developing periodontal disease. They include:
- Certain illnesses. Any conditions that affect your immune system or your ability to heal, including diabetes and arthritis, can put you at higher risk of periodontal disease.
- Side effects to medication. To have a healthy mouth, you need plenty of saliva to fight bacteria. However, many drugs, such as those for depression, heart disease, and other conditions, can cause a dry mouth, which can make you more prone to infection.
Here are some tips to prevent gum disease and dental problems:
Brush your teeth twice a day. Cram cautions that while we all think we know how to brush our teeth, many of us don't. "It's not just how often you brush, but how thoroughly you do it," says Cram.
Bad brushing technique can actually make gum disease worse. "If you brush too hard from side to side, you can miss the pockets of plaque and actually abrade or tear the gums," says Cram. "That can lead to more infection." Instead, make a circular motion with your toothbrush, which helps the bristles clear out any debris in the gaps between the gums and teeth.
Cram strongly recommends that you check in with your dentist or dental hygienist to make sure that you've got good technique. You can also see how to brush and floss well with the animated WebMD Health tool,Brushing Your Teeth Properly.
- Floss at least once a day. Again, Cram says that though flossing seems easy, many people don't do it well. She recommends that you ask your dentist or dental hygienist if you're doing it properly. See the tool above for flossing tips.
- Use antiseptic mouthwash and toothpaste, if your dentist recommends it. These aren't necessary for everyone, but Cram says that they can help some people who have trouble controlling the amount of plaque and bacteria in their mouths.
- Get regular checkups and cleanings. Most people should have a checkup every six months, but some people may need more frequent visits, says Gordon Douglass, DDS, past president of the American Academy of Periodontology.
- Eat healthy foods. "Vitamin deficiencies can make it harder for your body to fight off infection and heal," Cram tells WebMD. "So make sure to eat a good balanced diet with adequate vitamins and nutrients."
- Stop smoking. Here's yet another reason to kick the habit. According to the American Academy of Periodontology, smoking may be one of the most significant risk factors for periodontal disease.
"The good news is that, with a commonsense approach, periodontal disease is totally preventable," says Cram. Which may turn out to be great news for your heart as well.