Ask someone what’s in their mouth and you will likely hear “tongue,” “teeth,” and “saliva.” However, that’s far from all. Our mouths harbor about 700 kinds of microbes including bacteria, fungi, and other germs. While some help by keeping “bad” microbes in check, others can cause problems, such as gingivitis and gum disease. Fortunately, you can take smart steps to prevent and treat these issues. Read on to find out how.
What Is Gingivitis?
While gingivitis may sound like an exotic ailment (it comes from the Latin word that means “the gums” and -itis which means inflammation) it really just refers to a mild and early type of gum disease. Close to half of all adults aged 30 and above experience a form of gum disease. For people 65 and older, this number increases to seven out of 10.
Gingivitis occurs when plaque — a sticky, invisible layer of bacteria created by the interaction of sugars and starches in food with the mouth’s typical bacteria — forms on the teeth. If not removed in a timely manner, this plaque can harden under the gums and form tartar. Tartar allows bacteria to grow and can irritate and inflame the gums, especially the area around the base of the teeth known as the gingiva.
Some people experience no symptoms of gingivitis while others can suffer from multiple issues. Healthy gums feel firm, look pale pink, and hug the teeth tightly. Gums with gingivitis, on the other hand, may appear puffy or swollen. They may also look dark red, feel tender, and bleed during flossing and brushing. Gums may begin to recede in people with this early stage of gum disease and they may feel sensitive to hot or cold foods and drinks. Gingivitis can also be accompanied by bad breath that doesn’t go away even after brushing.
What Causes Gingivitis?
A variety of factors can play into a person developing gingivitis. The most common cause? Poor oral hygiene, often in the form of incorrect or infrequent flossing and brushing. It can take as little as 72 hours for plaque to turn into tartar, so cleaning the teeth after meals — or at least in the morning and evening — is crucial.
Other factors, such as being older and having a family history of gum disease, can contribute to the development of gingivitis as well. Women experiencing hormone fluctuations from pregnancy, birth control pills, or their menstrual cycle can be at greater risk. Some infections, diseases like diabetes, and being immunocompromised from health conditions like HIV/AIDS or cancer treatment may make a person more likely to suffer from gingivitis. Susceptibility may increase for people on certain medications for high blood pressure, angina, epilepsy, and more.
Dry mouth and situations that make proper oral hygiene difficult, such as having crooked teeth or dental restorations that don’t fit correctly, can also lead to gum disease. Smoking, chewing tobacco, and eating poorly (which can cause potential vitamin deficiencies) may add to an individual’s risk as well.
Is Gingivitis Contagious?
Gingivitis is typically caused by a buildup of plaque that leads to inflammation of the gums. While gingivitis itself is not contagious, the bacteria that can lead to it can spread through saliva. Though people with a strong immune system and good oral health may be less likely to develop gingivitis through saliva contact, those with a weakened immune system and/or poor oral health can be at risk. This group can include babies and children: Research shows kids are more likely to have gum disease if their parents and/or siblings suffer from it.
Until their condition has resolved, anyone with gingivitis should avoid kissing as well as sharing cups, straws, and food with others in order to prevent passing the bacteria.
How to Treat Gingivitis at Home
Many people ask how to get rid of gingivitis. The good news: With the guidance of a professional, you can help treat this oral condition at home.
At least twice a day — in the morning and at night — floss your teeth to dislodge any food and bacteria caught between them and then brush for at least two minutes. Consider using an electric toothbrush with a built-in timer. Going electric can make plaque removal easier due to the rotating or vibrating bristles. Make sure to replace your toothbrush or brush head at least every three to four months to ensure the best cleaning. If you use a toothbrush for too long, the bristles lose their stiffness and no longer remove food and plaque as designed. In fact, research shows that toothbrushes older than 40 days are much less effective and allow for higher plaque accumulation on the teeth.
For best results use a dental pick, dental stick, or interdental brush in addition to flossing in order to reach any particles the floss and brush may have missed. To keep the mouth and teeth as clean as possible, floss and brush the teeth after every meal and snack. More frequent cleaning helps prevent plaque buildup that could lead to tartar, bacteria growth, and gum irritation.
While not a substitute for flossing and brushing, a mouth rinse can be another powerful tool to prevent and treat gum disease. Many people think of it as an aid for bad breath, but it can also help promote good oral health by using its anti-gingivitis properties to reach spots that a toothbrush and floss cannot access. Your dentist or periodontist may prescribe a rinse, or you can choose from effective over-the-counter options that can help prevent bacteria and fight gum disease.
While it’s natural to want to treat gingivitis at home, an important first step is to visit a dentist or periodontist who can help diagnose the problem and recommend an oral care regimen. A specialist can make a thorough evaluation of the health of your mouth through a combination of visual inspection and annual X-rays, which can reveal any hidden issues. It’s also the perfect opportunity to show off your flossing and brushing techniques and get some pointers on how to improve your dental care skills at home. For many people, dental cleanings and exams every six months to a year suffice. People with significant gum disease issues may want to schedule more frequent appointments.
Individuals with serious periodontitis may benefit from an in-depth treatment, such as a deep cleaning protocol known as scaling and root planing. Scaling, the first step, involves the removal of all plaque and tartar above and below the gumline. Next comes root planing, which consists of a dentist or periodontist smoothing out the roots of the teeth to make it easier for the gums to reattach. Dental restoration, which may include repairing or removing crowns, fillings, or bridges that fit poorly, can also help reduce gum disease and improve oral health by creating smoother, easier-to-clean surfaces.
Can Gingivitis Be Reversed?
Anyone who has received a diagnosis of gum disease may wonder how to reverse gingivitis. This is important because gum disease doesn’t just affect the mouth — it can affect the entire body and your overall health. Without proper treatment, teeth can loosen or completely fall out from damage to the jawbone. Poor oral conditions may also lead to other serious health problems, including heart disease, diabetes, and rheumatoid arthritis.
Fortunately, through practicing great oral hygiene, seeing a dentist regularly to catch any issues early, and engaging in healthy habits — like choosing not to smoke and making balanced food choices — you can not only help reverse gingivitis, but also prevent it from coming back.
Gingivitis may sound serious, but when it’s caught early it is easily treatable. Brush, floss, rinse, repeat — and those nasty microbes won’t stand a chance.
Dr. Elizabeth Clary, D.M.D. is a member of the American Dental Association, Missouri Dental Association, Missouri Academy of Pediatric Dentistry, Chicago Dental Society, Greater St. Louis Dental Society, and Southern Illinois University School of Dental Medicine Alumni Association.