Irritation, gingivitis or gum disease?

Gingivitis and gum disease, and canker sores and other mouth ulcers are common causes of gum soreness. As much as they have in common pain-wise, there are some big differences in what they are.

Gum disease and gingivitis are not the same; and not all mouth ulcers are canker sores. Most cases of gingivitis are treatable and reversible with intervention. Bleeding gums, swelling, and pinkness or redness may be symptoms, but gingivitis is caused mostly by an invisible buildup of tartar and bacteria that irritates the gum tissues. When gingivitis is treated by removal of the hard buildup, gums can heal, but if it is left to grow and spread, periodontal, or gum disease, can develop, and it is not reversible but can lead to the loosening of gums and loss of teeth. Treating gum disease requires professional cleanings and a more aggressive treatment plan. Preventing either problem requires good oral hygiene.

Mouth ulcers and canker sores are less linked to the health of teeth, but they are very often the cause of gum pain for millions of people. Both are a form of open sore that directly exposes nerves in the mouth, causing mild to severe tenderness. Some sores have external causes, for example accidentally biting into the inside of your cheeks when eating; burning the tender tissues with scalding food or drinks; and developing sore spots from orthodontics or sharp-edged dental work.

Other mouth ulcers develop from the inside out. The sores aren't caused by injury -- they simply erupt; some of these ulcers come from herpes viruses, vitamin deficiencies, common colds and flus, and even heredity or stress [source: Hicks].

Other causes of gum soreness include the following:

  • Pregnancy, menstruation, puberty, oral birth control pills and menopause -- All of these involve changing hormones; increased hormone levels draw more blood to the gums and decreasing levels can cause issues such as dry mouth or bone loss in the gum area.
  • Cancer, diabetes and other health conditions -- Diseases in the body can cause sores in the mouth and side effects from treatments, and medications often lead to further complications like dry mouth and loss of bone density.
  • Dentures -- Ill-fitting dentures can be a constant source of pain and irritation, and they can lead to tissue damage and gum disease if not corrected.
  • Tobacco -- Nicotine and the thousands of other chemicals in cigarettes, chewing tobacco and other products lead to oral cancers.
  • Receding gums and loose and shifting teeth -- Loose gums leave lower teeth and some roots exposed to pain from heat, cold and air, and loose and shifting teeth can do the same while also rubbing into adjacent teeth and making it harder to clean in between.
  • Stress -- Too much stress can lead to depression or neglecting oral care, as well as abuse of alcohol or nicotine, which negatively impact gum health [sources: AAP; Mehegan].

If you have gum soreness linked to any of these causes, what can be done to treat or relieve the soreness and to keep it from getting worse? We'll look at some lifestyle and possible full-scale scaling interventions, next.