What is gum disease?

Periodontal conditions: Overview

Periodontal conditions affect the gums, bone, and tissue that surround and support the teeth. Plaque is a thin film of bacteria that sticks to teeth above and below the gum line. It can build up and harden into tartar. The bacteria in plaque and tartar can cause gum disease.

Gingivitis causes red, swollen, tender gums that bleed easily when brushed, persistent bad breath, and sensitive teeth. Gingivitis can be reversed with good dental care.

Periodontitis is more advanced. The gums pull away from the teeth. This leaves deep pockets where bacteria can grow. The disease can damage the bones that support the teeth. The teeth may get loose and fall out.

A mild problem can be treated by brushing and flossing your teeth every day. You may need other treatments, including:

  • A prescription mouthwash.
  • Antibiotics.
  • A cleaning that removes plaque and tartar buildup.

You may need surgery if other treatments don't help.

Gum disease

Gum disease (periodontal disease) is an infection of the tissues that surround and support the teeth. It's caused by the growth of bacteria present in plaque, which is a clear, sticky substance that your mouth produces.

Periodontitis is a severe type of gum disease that can't be reversed. Gingivitis is a type that can be mild to severe, but it can be reversed.

Keeping your teeth and gums healthy can lower your risk of gum disease.

What are the symptoms of gum disease?

Healthy gums are pink and firm, fit snugly around the teeth, and do not bleed easily. When you have gum disease, you may see changes to your gums.

There are two types of gum disease: gingivitis and periodontitis. The symptoms are different for each condition.

Gingivitis causes:

  • Gums that are red, swollen, and tender.
  • Gums that bleed easily during brushing or flossing.

Gingivitis usually isn't painful, so you may not notice the symptoms and may not get the treatment you need.

In periodontitis, the symptoms are more advanced. They include:

  • Gums that pull away from the teeth.
  • Bad breath that won't go away.
  • Pus coming from the gums.
  • A change in how your teeth fit together when you bite.
  • Loose teeth.

If you think you have gum disease, see your dentist right away. Early treatment can keep it from getting worse.

How is gum disease treated?

Early treatment of gum disease is very important. It can help prevent permanent gum damage, control infection, and prevent tooth loss.

For gingivitis, your dentist may prescribe antibiotics to help fight the infection. Your dentist may also suggest an antibacterial toothpaste to help reduce plaque and improve gingivitis.

For periodontitis, your dentist or dental hygienist may clean your teeth using a method called root planing and scaling. This removes the plaque and tartar buildup both above and below the gum line.

You may need surgery if these treatments don't control the infection. Surgery may also be needed if you have severe damage to your gums or teeth.

After surgery, you may need to take antibiotics or other medicines to aid healing and prevent infection.

How can you prevent gum disease?

Gum disease is most common in adults, but it can affect anyone, even children. So good dental habits are important throughout your life.

  • Brush your teeth 2 times a day, in the morning and before bedtime, with a fluoride toothpaste.
  • Floss once each day.
  • Visit your dentist for regular checkups and teeth cleaning.
  • Don't use tobacco products.

How is gum disease diagnosed?

To find out if you have gum disease, your dentist or dental hygienist will do an exam. During the exam, they will look for problems like bleeding gums or areas where your gums are pulling away from your teeth. You may get X-rays of your teeth to look for bone damage and other problems.

How can you care for yourself when you have gum disease?

Brush your teeth twice a day, in the morning and at night. Floss at least once a day. Have your teeth cleaned by a professional at least twice a year. Ask your dentist about using an antibacterial mouthwash to help reduce bacteria. And if your dentist prescribed antibiotics, take them as directed.

What causes gum disease?

Gum disease is caused by the growth of germs called bacteria on the teeth and gums. Bacteria are present in plaque, a clear, sticky substance that your mouth produces.


Mouth with swollen gums, with detail of healthy tooth and gums and of unhealthy tooth showing plaque on tooth and swollen gums.

Gum disease (periodontal disease) occurs when plaque is allowed to build up on the teeth and the gums, also called the gingiva. Gingivitis causes red, swollen gums that bleed easily when brushed. It is a type of gum disease that can be reversed.

Periodontal conditions: When to call

Call your dentist now or seek immediate medical care if:

  • You have symptoms of infection, such as:
    • Increased pain, swelling, warmth, or redness.
    • Pus draining from the area.
    • A fever.

Watch closely for changes in your health, and be sure to contact your dentist if:

  • You have new or worse tooth pain.
  • You do not get better as expected.

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The content above contains general health information provided by Healthwise, Incorporated, and reviewed by its medical experts. This content should not replace the advice of your healthcare provider. Not all treatments or services described are offered as services by us. For recommended treatments, please consult your healthcare provider.