Gum disease is caused by a build-up of plaque and affects most people at some time in their life. There are two main stages of gum disease; gingivitis and periodontitis. One of the common signs of early gum disease is bleeding gums, especially when brushing teeth. See your oral health professional if you notice signs of gum disease as they can help prevent it from becoming more serious.
Most people will have gum disease at some time in their life. Some of the common signs of gum disease are gums that are red, puffy or bleed.
Causes of gum disease
Gum disease is usually caused by a build-up of plaque on teeth and along the gum line. Plaque is a sticky coating containing bacteria. The immune system tries to get rid of plaque with an inflammation response. This is seen by the redness and swelling of the gum around the tooth.
Everybody has a range of bacteria in their mouth. Plaque is constantly being formed by some of these bacteria when they feed on the sugars in the foods and drinks you consume. Plaque provides the perfect environment for the bacteria that can cause gum disease to live and multiply.
Stages of gum disease
The two main stages of gum disease are:
Gingivitis is early gum disease. It affects the surface layers of the gum, particularly where the gum meets the tooth. At this stage, there is no damage to the deeper parts of the gums, teeth or bone.
The signs of gingivitis are:
- bleeding gums, especially when brushing or eating
- redness and swelling of the gum.
You might think it is best to stop brushing if your gums are red or puffy. Try to keep brushing, as this will get rid of the bacteria and plaque that is causing the problem. Soon the gums should look and feel better. If not, see your dentist or oral health professional.
Periodontitis is an advanced stage of gum disease that may occur if gingivitis is not treated.
The periodontium is the name given to a group of structures that surround and support the teeth, keeping the teeth in place. Periodontitis is the inflammation of the periodontium caused by the bacteria in plaque and the body’s immune response to it.
The structures affected by periodontitis include the covering of the tooth root (cementum), the bone and the fibres that connect the tooth root to the bone (periodontal ligament).
When the gum is weakened by gum disease, spaces can form between the tooth root and the gum. These spaces are called ‘periodontal pockets’. Bacteria get trapped in these pockets and cause even more damage to the periodontium. Over time, bone is damaged and lost, and larger spaces begin to form between the tooth and the gum.
If periodontitis is not treated, the structures that hold the tooth firmly into the gum can become so damaged that teeth become loose and may need to be removed.
Smoking and poorly managed diabetes are risk factors for periodontitis.
Signs of periodontitis include:
- bleeding gums
- swollen gums
- receding gums (the gum line shrinks away from the tooth making teeth look longer)
- bad breath
- a bad taste in the mouth
- tenderness when biting
- loose teeth.
Prevention of gum disease
Regular tooth brushing helps to prevent gum disease by removing the plaque that causes it. Remember:
- Brush teeth and along the gum line twice a day, in the morning and before going to bed.
- Use a toothbrush with a small head and soft bristles.
- Over 18 months of age, use a fluoride toothpaste, low fluoride for children aged 18 months to six years of age and standard fluoride for people six years and older.
- After brushing, spit out toothpaste, don’t swallow and don’t rinse with water. This leaves a small amount of fluoride in the mouth to protect teeth.
Follow the Australian Dietary Guidelines and enjoy a wide variety of nutritious foods from the five food groups every day, including vegetables, fruit, grain foods, lean meats (or alternatives), dairy (or alternatives). Drink plenty of water.
Have a dental check-up
See your dentist or oral health professional if you have swollen or bleeding gums, or are worried about anything to do with your mouth. Getting treated early can help save teeth affected by gum disease and other problems. Ask them how often you should visit for a check-up.
Where to get help
- Your public dental clinic:
- To find your local clinic Tel. 1300 360 054 or search by postcode at Dental Health Services Victoria.
- General enquiries or to make an appointment Tel. (03) 9341 1000 or 1800 833 039 outside Melbourne metro 8.30 am to 5 pm, Monday to Friday
- Dental emergencies Tel. 1300 360 054 8.30 am to 9.15 pm, Monday to Friday, 9 am to 9.15 pm, weekends and public holidays
- o Community dental clinics:
- Your private dental clinic:
- Your doctor
Things to remember
- Gum disease affects most people at some time in their life.
- Gum disease can get more serious over time, so it is best to get help early.
- Cleaning your teeth and along the gum line twice a day helps to prevent gum disease. Keep brushing gently even if gums bleed. See your oral health professional if bleeding continues.
- Getting treatment early can help save teeth affected by gum disease and other conditions..
You might also be interested in:
- Dental treatment.
- Diabetes and oral health.
- Smoking and oral health.
- Teeth and drug use.
Want to know more?
Go to More information for support groups, related links and references.
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Last reviewed: April 2015
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