When you want to highlight your smile, perhaps you whiten your teeth or choose a flattering shade of lipstick. But what about the health of your gums? After all, inflammation of gum tissue is far from attractive. Even in the early stages of gum disease—which is caused by plaque deposits that aren’t removed with proper oral hygiene—you may have bad breath, your teeth may appear to be unnaturally long due to receding gums, and your gums may bleed or look red, puffy and shiny instead of pink, firm and stippled (which means they should look textured with tiny bumps).
“Gum disease is very common,” says Dr. Sayed Mirbod, a periodontist in Halifax and president of the Canadian Academy of Periodontology. “It has become the main reason patients lose their teeth, surpassing cavities and the fracture of root canal–treated teeth.” Today’s advanced dental care is helping us to keep our natural teeth in good condition for longer—but poor gum health can still be our dental downfall. And that’s not all: Gum inflammation is also associated with cardiovascular disease, uncontrolled diabetes, lung disease, pneumonia, rheumatoid arthritis and, in women who are pregnant, preterm and low-birthweight babies. Researchers are still looking at some of these causal relationships, but the links are there.
Fully one third of Canadians age 20 or over have early-stage gum disease, which is called gingivitis. Another fifth have periodontitis (moderate to severe gum disease). The prevalence goes up with age, though even children can have what’s called aggressive periodontitis; about 70 percent of Canadians will eventually have some degree of gum disease in their lifetime.
Unless you know what symptoms to look for, gum disease can be silent for several years in its early stages. Yet that is when it’s most reversible. As untreated gingivitis gets worse—progressing to periodontitis and infecting the bone and tissues holding your teeth in place—you can experience bleeding, pain, loose teeth and gaps between your teeth. Chewing becomes difficult and tooth loss is possible. Once gum disease progresses from gingivitis to this more advanced periodontal disease, it is no longer reversible. At this point, tooth loss is unavoidable, and lifelong maintenance in a dental care office will be required.