How are gingivitis and pregnancy related?

By: Terri Briseno

Pregnancy comes with a lot of physical changes that affect your body, and one of those just happens to be a higher likelihood of getting gingivitis.
Pregnancy comes with a lot of physical changes that affect your body, and one of those just happens to be a higher likelihood of getting gingivitis.
©iStockphoto/Sharon Dominick

An old wives tale grimly predicted: "Have a baby, lose a tooth," and if you have two, four, eight or more kids, that's a lot of gaps in your motherly smile. Although it's true that many young women in the early years of colonizing the United States lost teeth as their bodies changed through pregnancy, and some pregnant women in areas with less-developed dentistry still lose teeth, it is not as common in the West today. Thankfully, it's not true that you have to lose a tooth to gain a child; however, there is a definite link between gum problems such as gingivitis and childbearing.

Many pregnant women have that rosy-cheeked, lit-from-within glow to complement the beautiful growth in their bellies. Some changes taking place in the body, though, are nothing to smile about. Hormones -- particularly an increase in progesterone -- and more rapid blood flow both cause swelling and tenderness, and some of these can be in the mouth.

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Pregnancy gingivitis affects many -- if not most -- women who are expecting, and it can be painful and can worsen quickly, not to mention it's disconcerting among all of the other aches and changes. Bleeding and swollen gums, increased sensitivity and even excess saliva are also common in pregnancy. In some women, hardened growths called "pregnancy tumors" form in the gums and may need to be removed if they don't shrink back on their own after delivery, but often they can appear and disappear during pregnancy. These tumors are actually swollen tissue lesions brought on when already sensitive gums are irritated by food or plaque and bacteria [sources: AAP; [url='http://www.ada.org/en/Home-MouthHealthy/~/link.aspx?_id=85F66A4BCFA644488A4E208418B0013E&_z=zADA[/url']; March of Dimes].

Is it inevitable that having a baby means having mouth problems? Maybe, but it has a lot to do with what kind of a plan you have for meeting the changes head on. What happens to your gums during those nine months or so of pregnancy can be short lived or last for the long term depending on how proactive and diligent you are with oral care before, during and after the bundle of joy changes, not just your body, but also your schedule.

We'll take a look inside the mouth and body of a woman carrying a baby and see just what's going on, next.

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Gingivitis and Pregnancy Health

Pregnancy doesn't cause gum disease, but it can lead to gingivitis and later, to gum disease. Gingivitis is common and causes swelling and inflamed gums. It develops when plaque from bacteria forms on the teeth and irritates the delicate gum tissues. Over time, gums begin to pull away from teeth and infections increase, leading to periodontitis. Although gingivitis is a form of gum, or periodontal disease, it is more mild and is reversible. Periodontitis is more serious and is treatable, but it's not reversible. Women can develop advanced gum disease if gingivitis isn't taken care of early and often during pregnancy; it isn't inevitable, but it is a risk.

Pregnancy gingivitis is known to cause the gum issues mentioned earlier -- swelling, soreness and bleeding, among others, but a less proven link is between oral health and the health of the mother and baby. Studies have shown that gingivitis and periodontitis are often present in women who give birth early, in advance of their due dates, or who have low-weight babies -- whether born early or full-term -- but a definite link between premature babies and gum disease hasn't been established [sources: AAP; March of Dimes]. It has been proven, however, that infections from decaying teeth can spread throughout the bloodstream, causing illness in the mother and the unborn baby [source: ADA].

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There is enough evidence of a link between oral health and healthy moms and babies that most national organizations devoted to both bodily and oral health and wellness advise developing not just a medical care plan, but also a dental care plan. Depending on the condition of the gums and teeth at the start of a pregnancy, dentists can design a care plan to help moms-to-be keep their mouths healthier and less prone to advanced gingivitis or gum disease.

If your feet swell during pregnancy, you can prop them on a pillow for relief, but what can you do if your gums swell? We'll take a look at some simple ways to avoid and treat pillowy gums, next.

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Prenatal and Postnatal Gum Care

Whether planning a pregnancy, entering the first trimester or rounding out the home stretch, it's important to consider oral hygiene as part of your prenatal and postnatal care. Scheduling a dental appointment early on can give you and your dentist time for a thorough cleaning, as well as for completing any necessary repairs before gingivitis or increased soreness begins.

Checking for signs of decay in teeth also is advisable to prevent any infections that could spread to the fetus. Setting appointments for routine checkups or extra cleanings during pregnancy and for after delivery helps set the calendar, giving space ahead of time for oral as well as physical care.

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Brushing, flossing and getting regular professional cleanings remain the best daily preventatives to gingivitis, whether expecting or not, but increasing the frequency during pregnancy is usually recommended for several reasons. Two frequent realities of pregnancy are eating more and getting nauseous or having morning sickness. It is important to snack on healthy foods throughout pregnancy, but all of the extra nibbling gives plaque and bacteria extra opportunities to form on teeth and exacerbate gingivitis or sore gums. Adding extra flossing or brushing in addition to the usual post-meal or before bed sessions helps. Having frequent vomiting or even acid reflux and heartburn issues also affects teeth because acid from the digestive system makes its way into the mouth. Acid is particularly damaging to teeth, but it also aids in plaque formation, which irritates gums.

Dentists will have specific experiences with products and techniques for relieving gum pain in patients, and rinsing with salt water, increasing intake of certain vitamins and minerals, or adding new dental tools such as electric toothbrushes or rinses may be among the recommendations. Doctors also come alongside with dietary guidelines that work in the body and in turn, the blood, feeding tissues including those in the gums.

Staying vigilant from start to finish should include some extra brushing and flossing but with soft brushes and gentle motions so gums don't experience additional soreness or damage. If teeth and gums are extra-sensitive, switching to a toothpaste for sensitive teeth can help as well. And keeping up with dental care after delivery, even while caring for a newborn round-the-clock, is important [source: March of Dimes].

As those final weeks approach and you can no longer see your swollen feet beneath your swollen belly, with some extra care and attention, you may at least be able to avoid swollen gums.

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More Great Links

  • American Academy of Periodontology (AAP). "Protecting Oral Health Throughout Your Life." Perio.org. 2011. (Sept. 22, 2011) http://www.perio.org/consumer/women.htm
  • American Dental Association (ADA). "Disease, Gum (Periodontal Disease)." 2011. (Sept. 22, 2011) http://ada.org/3063.aspx
  • American Dental Association (ADA). "Pregnancy." ADA.org. 2011. (Sept. 23, 2011) http://www.ada.org/en/Home-MouthHealthy/~/link.aspx?_id=85F66A4BCFA644488A4E208418B0013E&_z=z
  • March of Dimes. "Your Pregnant Body: Gum and Teeth Change." MarchofDimes.com. 2011. (Sept. 22, 2011) http://www.marchofdimes.com/yourbody_teeth.html
  • Mehegan, Marian, ed. "Oral Health Fact Sheet." WomensHealth.gov. Nov. 17, 2010. (Sept. 22, 2011) http://www.womenshealth.gov/publications/our-publications/fact-sheet/oral-health.cfm
  • National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research (NIDCR). "Periodontal (Gum) Disease: Causes, Symptoms and Treatments. NIH.gov. April 2010. (Sept. 22, 2011) http://www.nidcr.nih.gov/OralHealth/Topics/GumDiseases/PeriodontalGumDisease.htm
  • National Institutes of Health (NIH). "Gingivitis." NIH.gov. 2011. (Sept. 22, 2011) http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/ency/article/001056.htm
  • National Institutes of Health (NIH). "Gum Disease." NIH.gov. 2011. (Sept. 22, 2011) http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/gumdisease.html

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