Gum disease may not be a widely thought about condition, but it affects a large portion of the population. Michael Shannon, periodontist, explained there are different stages of gum disease and nearly everyone will have at least an episode of gingivitis, the mildest form of gum disease, sometime in their life.
"Gum disease is a universal event for most people if you also count gingivitis," Shannon said. "Periodontal disease, a more severe stage of gum disease, is found in one fourth of the population."
Periodontal disease is the result of bacterial infection in the mouth and the body's immune system response to the bacteria. At the periodontitis stage of gum disease, plaque has spread to the tooth roots. As the body fights the bacteria, periodontal pockets are formed as gums pull away from the teeth.
Katina Tengesdal/MDN - - Michael Shannon, periodontist, uses a tooth model to explain the effects of periodontal disease.
"As the teeth came through the gums, they formed a gum crevice," Shannon said. "The crevice is usually a tight turtleneck around the tooth. As the immune system reacts to bacteria in the tartar, the immune system eats away some of the tissue."
Periodontal disease causes tissue and bone loss, and patients may lose teeth, he said. The chronic inflammation in the mouth is also linked to other conditions in the body, such as heart disease and preterm or low birthweight babies. It can also make managing diabetes more difficult.
"As dentists and hygienists, we're starting to focus more on the fact that the teeth are attached to the rest of the body," Shannon said. So many times we're very tooth-centric, but the whole mouth is a very important part of the body."
For most, signs of gum disease include tender and bleeding gums.
"Healthy gums are coral pink, and unhealthy gums are magenta or red," Shannon said. "Losing teeth from gum disease used to be quite common, but now we have better access to dental care and people are starting to show concern over bleeding gums."
Gum disease can be caused by poor oral hygiene and the use of tobacco products, Shannon said. To prevent the condition, good oral hygiene is a must. Shannon recommended visiting a dentist twice a year, flossing daily and brushing twice a day.
"Flossing is awkward, I agree, but you should floss if you can," he said. "They also make inter-dental brushes that are easier to use than floss.
"We like to say around here that dental care is a lot like painting a house," he said. "You can't just paint the east and west of the house. You have to paint the north and south, too. Flossing cleans the sides of teeth that brushing can't get to."
He said persistence is important as well.
"When you start flossing you may get a little bit of a reaction and some bleeding until you toughen up the tissue," he said. "You have to keep flossing and overcome that."