Maybe you've been avoiding group photos or even dodging the mirror. The reason? You're finding it tough to flash a smile thanks to swollen, tender, bleeding gums.
The best way to tackle the problem is to brush and floss your teeth and keep up regular visits to your dentist. But you can also check out some home remedies, like rinsing with salt water or trying some herbal products.
What Home Remedies Can and Can't Do
There are many reasons your gums might bleed, but a common cause is gingivitis, a mild form of gum disease.
It happens when plaque, a sticky film made of bacteria, builds up on your teeth because of the starches and sugars in your food. If it stays on your teeth longer than a few days, it can harden under your gums and form a substance called tartar. Over time, this can lead to tooth decay and gum disease, so you may need your dentist to clean your teeth to prevent serious problems.
Home remedies can help with your bleeding gums, but they're not a cure-all. "Part of it you can do yourself, and part of it is impossible," says Craig Zunka, DDS, a Front Royal, VA, dentist and former president of the Holistic Dental Association. "It's not because we don't have good home remedies to use. It's because there's not a good delivery system and knowing how to get under the gum where the disease starts."
Zunka says that rinsing with any home remedy can only get as deep as 3 millimeters under the gums. "But people with gum disease develop little pockets around the teeth that are well in excess of 3 millimeters," he says. "The average is about 5-6, and if it's advanced, it can be 7 to 9."
To get that far down below the gumline, you can't rely on rinsing with remedies alone, Zunka says. He suggests you use a tool called an irrigator, which can help deliver the substance you're using into those deep pockets.
The best way to keep your mouth healthy is to brush and floss your teeth, rinse every day with an antibacterial mouthwash, and keep up with your dentist appointments. Adding some natural treatments to that routine may offer some benefits, but the results can vary from person to person.
"Nothing replaces going to the dentist, but yes, home remedies can be worth a shot," says Mimi Leung, a dental hygienist in San Francisco. "They're usually done with something easy to get and natural. And if you don't notice improvement, you can always go back to the dentist for a recommended treatment."
"Anything you do helps," Zunka says. "And the home remedies can be really effective, especially if you're able to take a sample of the bacteria that's under your gums and use treatments specific to that bacteria."
Work with your dentist, who can figure out the type of bacteria you have and keep track of your progress. It can improve your odds of reaching your gum health goals.
Zunka says rinsing with salt water is a good age-old home remedy that dries up bacteria. To get the most out of your saltwater solution, he suggests you add two other ingredients: baking soda and hydrogen peroxide. They help destroy the bacteria and clean the area.
"Take a little Tupperware container and make a 50/50 mix of salt and baking soda," Zunka says. "Then dip your toothbrush into the hydrogen peroxide and massage your gums and brush your teeth."
Leung agrees that salt water can help, but she cautions people with certain health conditions. "Salt water can help soothe the tissues some, but you have to be careful in patients with high blood pressure," Leung says. She says water that's too salty can actually irritate the tissues in your mouth, so start with a small amount.
There's been a lot of discussion in recent years about the possible health benefits of an ancient practice known as oil pulling. It involves swishing oil in your mouth for a period of time to treat conditions that range from migraines to diabetes. Some use it to help with bleeding gums.
The American Dental Association says there isn't enough evidence to support the use of oil pulling to treat gingivitis. A handful of studies, though, show there may be benefits.
For oil pulling, many people rinse with an edible oil like sesame, olive, coconut, or sunflower for anywhere from 1 to 20 minutes. Talk to your dentist before you try it.
Dairy and Crunchy Foods
Milk products have calcium, a nutrient that strengthens your teeth. A 2008 study in the Journal of Periodontology found that people who regularly ate dairy products like milk, cheese, and yogurt, had less gum disease.
Snacking on carrots and celery may help too, but it may be due to their crunch factor, rather than any nutrients they have.
"Crunchy foods can help take the plaque off your teeth, but I haven't seen anything specific about the vitamin A in carrots," Zunka says.
Also, when you chew, your mouth makes more saliva, which washes away food particles and acids that can cause damage. Veggies are also low in sugar and high in water and fiber, which helps clean your teeth.
Herbs and Oils
There's some research that suggests that rinsing with some herbs and oils can help cut down bacteria and inflammation in your mouth.
Zunka says there's a product that's sold over the counter that has peppermint, red thyme, cinnamon bark, Eucalyptus globulus, and lavender oils, as well as extracts from herbs like echinacea. Some researchers say it may help reduce your plaque and gum inflammation.
Zunka also recommends an herb called calendula, commonly known as marigold, for sore gums. Some evidence suggests that it's helpful in fighting plaque and gingivitis.
He says arnica is a good remedy for soreness but adds that it's best to dilute powerful solutions like pure oregano oil, since they can damage your tissue if you use them at full strength.