What Is Gum (Periodontal) Disease?

Myth: Gum disease is just a part of growing older.

Fact: You can prevent gum disease — it does not have to be a part of getting older.

Gum (periodontal) disease is an infection of the gums and surrounding tissues that hold teeth in place. Gum disease develops when plaque — a sticky film of bacteria — is allowed to build up along and under the gum line.

The two forms of gum disease are:

  • Gingivitis, a mild form that is reversible with good oral hygiene. In gingivitis, the gums become red, swollen and can bleed easily.
  • Periodontitis, a more severe form that can damage the soft tissues and bone that support teeth. In periodontitis, gums pull away from the teeth and form spaces (called “pockets”) that become infected. The body’s immune system fights the bacteria as the plaque spreads and grows below the gum line. Bacterial toxins and the body’s natural response to infection start to break down the bone and connective tissue that hold teeth in place. If not treated, the bones, gums, and tissue that support the teeth are destroyed. The teeth may eventually become loose and have to be removed.

The good news is that gum disease can be prevented. It does not have to be a part of growing older. With thorough brushing and flossing and regular professional cleanings by a dentist, you can reduce your risk of developing gum disease as you age.

And if you have been treated for gum disease, sticking to a proper oral hygiene routine and visiting the dentist for regular cleanings can minimize the chances it will come back.

Here are some things you can do:

  • Brush your teeth twice a day (with a fluoride toothpaste).
  • Floss regularly to remove plaque from between teeth. Or use a special brush or wooden or plastic pick recommended by a dental professional.
  • Visit a dentist for routine check-ups.
  • Don’t smoke or use chewing tobacco or snuff.
  • Eat a well-balanced diet.

If you smoke, you are at higher risk for developing periodontitis than a nonsmoker. In fact, smoking is one of the most significant risk factors for gum disease.

Here’s why:

  • Smoking may impair blood flow to the gums, reducing the amount of oxygen and nutrients to the tissues and make them more vulnerable to infection.
  • Chemicals in tobacco smoke cause inflammation and cell damage, and can weaken the immune system.
  • Nicotine is toxic to cells that make new connective tissue, and also increases the production of an enzyme that breaks down tissue.

Smoking can also lower the chances that treatment for periodontitis will be successful and can lengthen the time it takes for treatments to work.

Content from:
National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research
National Oral Health Information Clearinghouse
Bethesda, Maryland 20892–3500
This publication is not copyrighted.