What is gum disease?

Learn about the different types of gum disease and their overall impact on your health.

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Gum disease can creep up on you

Gum disease is one of the most common diseases in adult Australians, but often, the lack of tooth pain in the early stages means it’s left untreated for too long. 

This is a serious problem. The early stages of gum disease - called gingivitis - can be cured. But if it’s allowed to progress, it can become periodontitis, which irreversibly damages the supporting structures of teeth including the gums and jaw bone. This often can’t be cured; it’s a disease that needs to be managed for the rest of your life.

It’s not well known, but gum disease can also be associated with other more serious health risks like heart disease and diabetes.

This series of articles by specialist periodontists at EO Perio will help you understand gum disease and notice the symptoms early, so you can get the professional dental care you need before it’s too late. 

What exactly is gum disease?

Gum disease or ‘periodontal disease’ refers to a group of chronic inflammatory conditions that affect the gums and jawbone, which support your teeth.

Gingivitis is the mildest form. Most people have it, at least in some parts of their mouth. Gingivitis means the gums are inflamed. Bacteria in plaque on teeth cause this inflammation.

In some people, gingivitis can progress to periodontitis, which is more serious because it causes irreversible damage to the ligaments and bone which support your teeth. That’s why, in the later stages, teeth can become loose, drift out of position and become sore to bite on.

The word ‘periodontal’ literally means ‘around the tooth’.

You can read more about the stages of gum disease here.

How does it start?

Gingivitis is your body’s response to bacteria that live in the plaque around your teeth near your gums. The inflammation is the body's way of trying to fight the bacteria. 

In susceptible people, the inflammation can become destructive and result in progressive damage to the ligaments and bone supporting the teeth. Periodontitis can cause you to lose teeth. In fact, it’s the most common cause of adult tooth loss. 

How do I know if I have it?

This is the tricky part. Gingivitis is very sneaky, and you may not even realise you have it. It’s usually painless, but you may notice redness and swelling of the gums, or your gums might bleed a little when you brush or floss your teeth.

The best way to pick up on gingivitis early, while it’s still easy to treat, is to see your dentist for regular six-monthly check-ups. Or better still, see a periodontist - that’s a gum disease specialist. Periodontists can usually tell if you are susceptible to the more serious forms of gum disease.

Once gingivitis worsens and develops into periodontitis, you may still have no obvious symptoms. By the time you feel pain, you may have very advanced gum disease. You could also have other symptoms, like your teeth feeling loose or your gums coming away from your teeth.

You can read more about the signs and symptoms of gum disease here.

Is it common?

Unfortunately gum disease is very common. In fact, it’s one of the most common chronic diseases in adults in Australia.

The statistics might shock you - especially if you’re in your thirties or over. 

Nearly 30% of all Australians have periodontitis, and two thirds of that group are over 35.

Around one in four 35 to 54 year olds, nearly half of all 55 to 74 year olds and more than 60% of over-75s suffer from it.*

What causes gum disease?

Gum disease is caused by bacteria in plaque, the sticky residue that builds up on teeth if you don’t brush and floss regularly.

Anything that makes it harder to clean bacterial plaque from your teeth can predispose you to gum disease. These include:

  • Old, defective dental work
  • Crowded teeth
  • Impacted wisdom teeth

There are a number of general health issues that can change the way your body reacts to bacterial plaque, making it more damaging. These include:

  • Hereditary factors
  • Change in hormones (for example in pregnancy)
  • A big life-changing event 
  • Medication
  • Smoking
  • Stress
  • Systemic diseases such as diabetes
  • Immuno-deficiency diseases such as AIDS

What happens if you don't treat gum disease properly?

In addition to risking tooth and bone loss, leaving gum disease untreated can have serious consequences beyond your mouth. It is linked to a number of other illnesses, including diabetes, problems during pregnancy, heart attack, stroke, dementia, and more. 

Major dental health authorities have long recognised the robust scientific evidence showing the link between oral health and general health all over the body. But the British Dental Health Foundation has highlighted that only one in three people know it is linked to heart disease, and just one in six are aware it can increase your risk of diabetes or stroke.**

You can read more about the causes and risk factors of gum disease here.

Can you cure gum disease?

The short answer is yes, if you pick up on it early, but unfortunately it’s not always that simple. 

Broadly, the farther gum disease is allowed to progress, the harder it becomes to treat. 

While gingivitis is the first stage of gum disease, periodontitis has four different stages:


Stage 1 - Initial Periodontitis

Stage 2 - Moderate Periodontitis 

Stage 3 - Severe with the potential for tooth loss

Stage 4 - Severe with potential for loss of all the teeth


There are both slow and rapidly progressing forms. If you treat gingivitis before it advances to periodontitis and affects your jaw bone, you can make a full recovery. With professional treatment and ongoing good oral hygiene at home, you can reverse the effects and enjoy good gum health for life.  

But that’s not always the case for periodontal disease. If it’s caught too late, it can become something you have to deal with for life. 

The good news is that although there’s no outright cure, with professional help, you can certainly manage it and prevent it from progressing. Seeing a periodontist is the first step to getting your health back and learning how you can best manage your condition. 

You can read more about gum disease treatment options here.

How do I prevent it?

Good oral hygiene at home goes a long way toward preventing gum disease. Brushing and flossing twice a day and using an antibacterial toothpaste is a great start. If you do this along with regular check-up and cleans at your dentist, you’re already doing an excellent job of minimising your risk.

But - as we’ve seen - many other factors can play a role, and some of them may be completely beyond your control. That’s why it’s important to see your dentist or periodontist regularly, so they can spot any changes in your gum health. 

And if you already have signs - like bleeding when you brush, bad breath or loose teeth - see your dentist or periodontist immediately for a professional clean and a treatment plan if needed. 

You can read more on the prevention and maintenance of gum disease here.

Conclusion

If you think you may have it, don’t delay: contact your dentist immediately. Remember, once gingivitis progresses to periodontitis, the damage cannot be reversed. 

If you’ve been having regular check and cleans and there’s been little or no improvement, or if you have symptoms but you don’t have a regular dentist, don’t hesitate to get in touch with us.  

We are specialists, but you don’t need a referral - you can simply contact us and request an appointment at a time that suits you. No matter what your condition, our friendly and knowledgeable team can help get you back on track to healthy teeth for life. 

*https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/j.1834-7819.2009.01167.x

**https://www.nhs.uk/live-well/healthy-body/health-risks-of-gum-disease/#:~:text=Gum%20disease%20may%20increase%20your,problems%20in%20pregnancy%20and%20dementia

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