Gum Health

Most people go to the dentist because they’re worried about cavities, but once you reach a certain age, gum disease is a more important concern.

People tend to pay more attention to teeth than gums. While white, sparkling teeth are a sign of a healthy mouth, they are not the only sign. Your gums are a barrier that helps prevent inflammation that may damage your body. In fact, gum disease has been linked to health problems such as diabetes, heart disease, stroke, and premature births or low-birth weight babies.

People with gum disease—which affects up to 50 percent of adults—are twice as likely to suffer from heart problems. 

As a result, dentists who treat gum disease and doctors who treat heart disease are teaming up with a message: dealing with one can help people avoid the other. Recently, a major heart journal and a major periodontal journal simultaneously published a consensus paper that outlines the link between the two diseases (inflammation) and urges both types of doctors to look at the body as a whole rather than a set of unrelated parts. 

The theory is if you have a certain amount of inflammation, something is going to break down somewhere whether it’s your heart, your gums or something else.

The good news? With daily brushing and flossing, and regular check-ups, most people can prevent gum disease. Here are answers to top questions about gum disease.

What is gum disease?

Just as your skin protects your muscles, bones, and major organs, your gums protect your teeth and the structures that hold them in place. Gum disease, also known as periodontal disease, starts when plaque, made up of bacteria, mucus, and food particles, invades the small space between your gums and teeth. If left to fester, your gums can become infected, putting them and your teeth at risk. If gum disease progresses, it becomes increasingly difficult, painful, and expensive to treat.

What are the stages of gum disease?

Gingivitis is the earliest stage of gum disease. At this stage, gums become red and inflamed and may bleed easily. Gingivitis can usually be turned around with a regimen of daily brushing and flossing, along with regular dental check-ups and cleanings -- but it does need to be caught early. Gingivitis is reversible. Periodontitis usually has to have some sort of intervention.
Periodontitis is a more serious stage of gum disease that can seriously damage the gums and structures that support the teeth. One of the hallmarks of periodontitis is pockets that form when gums pull away from the teeth. The bone and ligament that support the tooth start to break down and over time, the tooth becomes loose in its socket. Without treatment, the tooth could eventually have to be removed.

Besides what it does to the mouth, gum disease has been linked to conditions such as diabetes, heart disease, stroke, and premature births or low birth weight. Emerging research pinpoints inflammation. They’re finding the role of inflammation in the body is very critical to a lot of these different diseases, and that’s essentially what gum disease is: infection and inflammation in the oral cavity.”

How many people have gum disease?

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services estimates 1 in 7 adults between the ages 35 and 44 have some form of gum disease, from gingivitis to severe periodontitis. By age 65, 1 in 4 adults have gum disease. A report by the American Academy of Periodontology estimates 20% to 30% of adults have gum disease serious enough to put them at risk of losing teeth. 

Gum disease more often affects men than women. One theory is that women in general take better care of their teeth. Smoking is a huge risk factor for gum disease. Up to 90% of people with severe periodontitis smoke. Further, when gum surgery becomes necessary, cigarette smoke slows down the healing process.

What are the signs and symptoms of gum disease?

People associate disease with pain but early gingivitis is usually not painful. We recommend keeping an eye out for signs of a gum problem before things get serious. Here are symptoms to watch out for.

  • Swollen or red gums
  • Gums that are tender or bleed easily
  • Chronic bad breath
  • Areas of gum that appear to be pulling back from the teeth
  • Pain when chewing
  • Sensitive teeth
  • Teeth that are loose


How do you treat gum disease?

The stage of gum disease will determine how it is treated. In all cases, however, the goal will be to bring any infection under control and prevent further damage.

Scaling and root planning. 

For less severe cases of periodontitis, the dentist will remove infection-causing plaque with a method called scaling and root planing. It is essentially a deep cleaning method that removes bacteria from around the gum line and on the tooth root.


Sometimes antibiotics or antimicrobial medications can reduce the size of gum pockets. These come in the form of mouthrinse, gel, pills, or tiny round particles that the dentist places directly in the pocket.


If deep cleaning and medication do not return infected gums to a state of health, surgery is the next step. There are two types of surgery. Flap surgery lifts away gum tissue so the dentist can clean underneath it; then the tissue is sutured back in place. Gum or bone graft surgery grafts tissue or bone from another part of your mouth onto the damaged part of your gum or jaw.

How can you prevent gum disease?

You can save yourself a whole lot of problems: pain, money, aggravation, by just doing simple preventive things. Caring for your gums involves:

Brushing your teeth twice a day
Flossing once a day
Seeing your dentist for regular check-ups and cleanings

Even if you brush and floss without fail, a professional cleaning can remove tartar that your toothbrush cannot. While two cleanings a year works for some people, Dr. Kelleher or our hygienist may suggest a more frequent schedule if your gums and teeth show signs of damage.

In addition, behaviors that are good for your overall health also help protect your gums. These include not smoking and eating a healthy diet that’s low on sugar and high on whole grains.

When Dr. Kelleher asks about your health history, she’s not being nosy. If you are pregnant or have a family history of diabetes, stroke, or heart disease, let us know. We will also want to know what medications you are taking — some of them increase your risk of gum disease. And be ready to tell us if you have noticed any signs of bleeding or swelling in your gums, or loose or painful teeth.

A little extra attention to your gums can keep your whole smile beautiful for many years to come.

Healthy Eating Tips

Studies show that regular exercise and stress reduction can have anti-inflammatory effects. Besides exercising and, of course, getting regular dental checkups, choosing certain foods may also help you protect both your gums and your heart.

1. Raisins: You might think that because raisins are sweet and sticky, they’re not good for your oral health. But research has shown that antioxidants in raisins fight the growth of a type of bacteria that can cause inflammation and gum disease.

2. Green tea: Scientists reported in 2009 that Japanese men who drank a daily cup of green tea significantly lowered their risk of developing gum disease—the more the tea, the lower the risk. The researchers believe antioxidants called catechins in green tea are the key. Catechins hamper the body’s inflammatory response to the bacteria that cause gum disease.

 3. Whole grains: A study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that men who ate four or more servings of whole grains a day reduced their risk of periodontal disease by 23 percent. Compared to refined carbohydrates (white bread, white rice), whole grains (oatmeal, brown rice) are digested more slowly, causing a steadier rise in blood glucose, according to the epidemiology study at the University of South Carolina, Columbia. Avoiding spikes in blood sugar tempers the body’s production of inflammatory proteins—and lowers the risk of both gum and heart disease.