How Gum Disease Impacts Your Health

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Young woman showing her healthy gums

When people think about improving their health, things like getting more exercise, eating more vegetables and getting more sleep often come to mind. Taking better care of your gums and teeth probably doesn’t make the list, but it should. Dental and medical professionals alike agree that gum health is important not just for your mouth, but for your whole body.

What Is Gum Disease?

Gum disease, also called periodontal disease, is a progressive disorder of the mouth and gums that develops over time in stages.

Gingivitis. The first and earliest stage of gum disease is called gingivitis. It is very common and most people will have it at some point in their life. Characterized by symptoms of gum soreness, some bleeding with brushing, mild pain and redness and sometimes minor swelling, gingivitis can usually be reversed with treatment. If untreated, symptoms will worsen and progress to a move severe form of the disease called periodontitis.

Periodontitis. An advanced form of gum disease that can’t be reversed – the damage to the bone and gum tissue is permanent. Its progression, however, can be stopped with professional care. Signs and symptoms of periodontitis, include:

  • Receding gums
  • Changes in bite (the way your teeth fit together when you bite or chew)
  • Bad breath
  • Loose teeth and/or tooth loss
  • Red, swollen and bleeding gums
  • Painful chewing

The Connection between Gum Health and Whole-Body Health

“The common denominator for both gingivitis and periodontitis is the onset of inflammation in the gums,” says Andres-Pinto, DMD, MPH. “Unchecked, inflammation actually breaks down the gums and can lead to the destruction of the jaw bone, ultimately resulting in tooth loss.”

And, when inflammation exists anywhere in the body, it puts the immune system on high alert. It reacts by activating infection-fighting cells (white blood cells) that tell the rest of the body that something is wrong. These cells circulate through the bloodstream to every part of the body. The strong immune response that occurs due to inflammation in the gums (or anywhere in the body) has far-reaching implications, increasing the risk for many health conditions, including:

  • Heart Disease. Inflammation related to gum disease has been linked to an increased risk for heart disease and high blood pressure. The cardiovascular system reacts very negatively to inflammation by increasing the amount of cholesterol and fats in the bloodstream which can build up on the artery walls to form plaques. This can lead to atherosclerosis – a condition in which the blood vessels become narrower and less pliable – potentially blocking blood flow.
  • Diabetes. When blood sugar levels are not well controlled it can lead to higher glucose levels in the saliva, which promotes the growth of the bacteria that cause gum disease. In addition, infections from untreated periodontal disease can also cause a rise in blood sugars, making it more difficult to control diabetes.
  • COVID-19. Some research suggests that inflammation in the mouth and gums associated with severe periodontitis may lead to more aggressive COVID-19 infections and increase the risk of complications.
  • Irritable Bowel Disease (IBD). Although there is only preliminary data available to support this connection, some experts believe that inflammation in the oral cavity can contribute to a worsening of IBD and other gastrointestinal disorders.
  • Mental Health. Healthy teeth and gums also play a role in how we feel. People with advanced gum disease and/or tooth loss tend to smile less and may feel self-conscious or ashamed. As a result, they may avoid social situations which can lead to increased isolation – a major factor in mental decline, depression and anxiety.

What Causes Periodontal Disease?

“The main culprit is poor brushing and flossing habits, and diet may play a role,” says Dr. Pinto. “After we eat, particularly carbohydrates, bacteria in our mouth feed on the glucose in the food and form a sticky layer (plaque) on the teeth. When the teeth are not properly cleaned, plaque can build up, harden and cause gum inflammation,” he adds. Brushing and flossing at home are not usually enough to remove all plaque from the gum line – that is why dentists recommend that everyone have a professional cleaning every six months.

Additional factors that may increase your risk for gum disease include:

  • Use of tobacco products including cigarettes, cigars and chewing tobacco
  • Chronic alcohol use
  • Some prescription medications
  • Nutritional deficiencies
  • Inadequate mouth moisture (dry mouth)
  • Genetics

Prevention Is the Best Medicine

Although professional dental care can usually halt its progression, severe gum disease cannot be reversed. Therefore, it’s better to prevent the problem in the first place. Dr. Pinto recommends the following preventive measures:

  • Don’t smoke. Chronic tobacco use increases the risk of gum disease and mouth cancer.
  • Limit or eliminate alcohol use. Chronic alcohol use is associated with gum disease and oral cancers.
  • Don’t use antibacterial mouthwash. Oral health relies on a healthy balance of bacteria in the mouth. Antibacterial rinses should only be used if recommended by your dentist.
  • Brush your teeth at least twice daily. Make sure your toothpaste contains fluoride to keep your enamel healthy.
  • Floss your teeth at least twice daily. If flossing is difficult due to bridges or partial dentures, a water pic can be helpful.
  • Consume foods low in carbohydrates and starches.
  • See your dentist regularly. Get your teeth checked and professionally cleaned every six months. People with gum disease may need to be seen more frequently.

Related Links

If you have medical complications due to the progression of gum disease, University Hospitals has teams of experts ready to help you manage your condition, including heart disease, diabetes, gastrointestinal disorders and mental health problems.

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