Healthy gums are firm and pale pink. If your gums are puffy, dusky red and bleed easily, you may have gingivitis. Because gingivitis is seldom painful, you can have gingivitis without even knowing it.
Signs and symptoms of gingivitis include:
- Swollen gums
- Soft, puffy gums
- Receding gums
- Occasionally, tender gums
- Gums that bleed easily when you brush or floss, sometimes seen as redness or pinkness on your brush or floss
- A change in the color of your gums from a healthy pink to dusky red
- Bad breath
When to see a dentist
Most dentists recommend regular checkups to identify gingivitis, cavities (caries) and other dental conditions before they cause troubling symptoms and lead to more serious problems. If you notice any signs and symptoms of gingivitis, schedule an appointment with your dentist. The sooner you seek care, the better your chances of reversing damage from gingivitis and preventing its progression to periodontitis.
The most common cause of gingivitis is poor oral hygiene that encourages plaque to form. Plaque is an invisible, sticky film composed mainly of bacteria. Plaque forms on your teeth when starches and sugars in food interact with bacteria normally found in your mouth. Brushing your teeth at least twice a day and flossing each day removes plaque. Plaque requires daily removal because it re-forms quickly, usually within 24 hours.
Plaque that stays on your teeth longer than two or three days can harden under your gumline into tartar (calculus). Tartar can also develop resulting from the mineral content in your saliva. Tartar makes plaque more difficult to remove and creates a protective shield for bacteria. You usually can't get rid of tartar by brushing and flossing — you need a professional dental cleaning to remove it.
The longer that plaque and tartar remain on your teeth, the more they irritate the gingiva, the part of your gum around the base of your teeth. In time, your gums become swollen and bleed easily. Tooth decay (dental caries) also may result.
Gingivitis is common, and anyone can develop it. Many people first experience gum problems during puberty and then in varying degrees throughout life.
Factors that can increase your risk of gingivitis include:
- Poor oral health habits
- Tobacco use
- Older age
- Decreased immunity as a result of leukemia, HIV/AIDS or other conditions
- Certain medications
- Certain viral and fungal infections
- Dry mouth
- Hormonal changes, such as those related to pregnancy, your menstrual cycle or use of birth control pills
- Poor nutrition
- Substance abuse
- Ill-fitting dental restorations
Untreated gingivitis can progress to gum disease that spreads to underlying tissue and bone (periodontitis), a much more serious condition that can lead to tooth loss.
Periodontitis and poor oral health in general may also affect your overall health. It's not completely understood — and researchers haven't established whether periodontal disease actually causes any of these conditions — but having periodontitis may be associated with:
- Heart attack
- Lung disease
- Premature birth or having a baby with low birth weight, in women
The best way to prevent gingivitis is a program of good dental hygiene, one that you begin early and practice consistently throughout life. A complete cleaning with a toothbrush and floss should take three to five minutes. Flossing before you brush allows you to clean away the loosened food particles and bacteria.
See your dentist or dental hygienist regularly for professional cleanings, usually every six to 12 months. If you have risk factors that increase your chance of developing gingivitis, you may need professional dental cleanings more often.