What Causes Gingivitis and How Can You Protect Your Gums?

March 08, 2018


It’s been said that you don’t know what you have until it’s gone.

That’s certainly true of many things in life, and your oral health is one of them. When there’s nothing wrong, it’s easy to give little or no thought to our teeth and gums. But, as soon as there’s a problem, it can become all-consuming.

This is especially true if you develop periodontal disease. Suddenly, every bite of food can be painful. It can cause issues with breath odor as well. And, those are just the mild inconveniences. Serious gum infections can spread through the bloodstream and even become deadly if they make it as far as the heart, brain, or another vital organ.

So, how can you protect yourself from serious periodontal disease?

The first step is recognizing, treating, and eventually preventing, the precursor to serious periodontal disease: Gingivitis.

What is gingivitis?

Gingivitis literally means, “inflammation of the gingiva,” which is the portion of the gum that’s in contact with your teeth. This gateway to the gum tissue is the natural place for any sort of inflammation or eventual infection to begin, since — barring serious trauma — the only source of gum irritation is food particles and/or bacteria from inside the mouth.

What are the symptoms of gingivitis?

While the symptoms of gingivitis may be very mild, they should be seen as an early warning sign of potentially serious complications to come. They include:

  • Red, irritated, or sore gums right around the teeth
  • Swollen or puffy gums
  • Bad breath
  • Bleeding when you brush or floss
  • Gums that recede slightly from the teeth

What causes gingivitis?

"Gingivitis literally means, 'inflammation of the gingiva,' which is the portion of the gum that’s in contact with your teeth."

With few exceptions, gingivitis is associated with a lack of proper oral hygiene.

The true cause is the introduction of food particles in between the gum and the surface of the tooth. This can cause localized irritation if it’s something large enough, like the skin of a popcorn kernel, for instance. But, more often than not, you won’t even realize it’s happened. The food particle pries the gum away from the tooth — perhaps only a fraction of a millimeter — providing an opening for some of the millions of bacteria that inhabit your mouth to gain entry into the gum tissue. A buildup of plaque at the gum line can have the same effect.

This is common, and inevitable, really. There’s no way you could possibly prevent it from ever happening.

And, if you brush and floss your teeth regularly as recommended, this common occurrence is generally of no consequence. Effective oral hygiene not only removes the offending food particles (and keeps the plaque buildup under control), but often does so soon enough that the immune system has no problem at all fighting off the tiny contingent of harmful bacteria that have made it into the gums, and you never even realize there was a problem in the first place.

But, without thorough dental care, this potentially harmless condition is allowed to continue for hours, days, or longer. That’s when gingivitis symptoms begin showing up.

What can you do about gingivitis?

Even at the point where someone finds their gums to be swollen, tender, or prone to bleeding, gingivitis can still usually be cleared up by regularly brushing and flossing, especially in the affected region of the gums. By removing the food particles and balancing the bacterial population in the mouth, you leave your immune system with an opportunity to eradicate the bacterial invaders.

In some cases, though, the irritation progresses to the point of infection. In that case, it’s gone beyond simple gingivitis into the realm of true periodontitis (infection of the gums) or worse.

If you find yourself dealing with the symptoms of gingivitis for many days in a row, or if a mild gum irritation gives way to serious pain, you need to see a dentist for treatment. A thorough, professional cleaning is usually enough to stop even advanced gingivitis in its tracks. If there are signs your gums have become infected, your dentist may prescribe antibiotics to aid your immune system in fighting off the infection.

Generally, as long as you haven’t ignored gingivitis for far too long, no serious or prolonged treatment plans will be needed. But, in the case of advanced periodontal disease, long courses of antibiotics and other drugs may be needed.

The best course of action is to maintain excellent oral health so gingivitis never has a chance to get started. By keeping up with the recommended brushing and flossing schedule, combined with visits to the dentist every six months, you may never have to deal with gum disease at all.

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