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Gum disease, otherwise known as periodontitis or periodontal disease, is an infection that affects the tissues surrounding the teeth. It is most often caused by poor oral hygiene, which leads to plaque build-up and irritation of the gums. Early symptoms include bleeding and swollen gums, while advanced symptoms include bad breath and a foul taste in the mouth. While gum disease is a fairly common condition among adults, mild cases are fully reversible with proper and timely treatment. When left untreated, however, gum disease can lead to many complications, namely loose teeth, receding gums, dental abscesses, and the loss of teeth.

Periodontitis increases with age and is more common in men than women. Nearly 50% of adults above the age of 30 suffer from gum disease, compared to 70% of adults above the age of 65. Children can also experience periodontal disease, specifically a form called aggressive periodontitis. This is a relatively rare condition that affects the primary molars and incisors, as well as the alveolar bone. Children have a greater risk of developing aggressive periodontitis during puberty because progesterone increases the circulation of blood flow to the gums. Looking at gender, males are nearly twice as likely to develop gum disease as females, which is believed to be due in part to their differences in oral hygiene habits.

In addition to age and gender, there are a number of other risk factors that can increase an individual’s risk of periodontitis. These include smoking or chewing tobacco, obesity, inadequate nutrition, recreational drug use, hormonal changes during pregnancy and menopause, vitamin C deficiency, medications that cause gum changes or dry mouth, cancer treatment, decreased immunity due to leukemia or HIV/AIDS, and certain diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis, diabetes, and Crohn’s disease. That said, adopting good oral hygiene habits and scheduling regular dental visits can help reduce and prevent gum disease altogether.

The signs and symptoms of gum disease vary from one person to the next, but there are several things to look out for. Healthy gums fit snugly around each tooth, feel firm to the touch, and appear pale pink in color. Unhealthy gums, on the other hand, may look swollen or puffy, feel tender to the touch, and appear bright red or purple. Furthermore, there may be pus between the teeth and gums, chewing may be painful, new spaces may develop between the teeth, there may be blood when brushing or flossing, and the teeth may fit together differently when biting. Generally speaking, it’s a good idea to visit a dentist as soon as any of these symptoms appear, to increase the chance of reversing the damage completely.

Before diagnosing a patient with periodontitis, a dentist may examine the mouth, review one’s medical history, measure the pocket depth between the gums and the teeth, and take a series of dental X-rays. The dentist can then assign a stage to the disease and determine the best course of treatment, either surgical or nonsurgical. Surgical treatments include flap surgery or pocket reduction surgery, soft tissue grafts, bone grafting, guided tissue regeneration, and tissue-stimulating proteins. Nonsurgical treatments include antibiotics, scaling, and root planning. Lifestyle and home remedies can also help to treat gum disease, such as using a soft toothbrush, brushing after every meal, and flossing daily.