Why do you have sore gums?

sore gums
Sore gums can be caused by a host of problems, everything from gingivitis and gum disease to improperly fitting dentures and even oral cancer.
Stockbyte/Getty Images

Maybe a time or two you've had a pair of jeans become a little too tight. Whether they shrunk in the dryer or you added a few extra pounds to fill out the curves, one consequence of the body-hugging fit is how hard it is to get anything in and out of the pockets. Reaching for cash, lipstick or a comb nearly causes your hand to get stuck in the process.

How does that relate to sore gums? Gums can have pockets too, but you want them to be tight. Teeth and gums should cling together so tightly that you can get little more than dental floss into the gumline. So when something larger, like a poppy seed or a long shredded piece of a crunchy vegetable works its way into the space between, it becomes almost impossible to stop thinking about until you get it out.


This temporary, irritating soreness happens sometimes in even the healthiest of mouths, but when gums lose some of their attachment to teeth, gaps at the gumline and below become larger and looser, and food, plaque and bacteria gather in these pockets. Swelling, soreness and bleeding might develop, and instead of having a problem like in "The Princess and the Pea" where a tiny irritant nags at you for a night, for example, your mouth can become full of sore spots that cause ongoing pain.

Gum soreness is also similar to having a paper cut. It seems like it would be a small thing, but the intense and throbbing nature of the pain can make it extremely annoying and uncomfortable. Having a lodged food particle, a canker sore or other mouth issue is pain amplified. Nerves and tissues in the gums and teeth shoot and throb unlike many others because of the sheer number of nerves and how easily exposed they become when tissues are damaged. Films and drawings that illustrate what's happening inside the mouth depict pain as throbbing red bolts radiating into and out of the surrounding teeth -- and it really can feel like lightning bolts of pain.

How can you know whether your sore gums are just a passing ache in the mouth or a chronic condition that needs professional treatment? Taking a good look in the mirror is a first step, though you may not be able to see the source. When should you have a dentist or a periodontist -- a gum specialist -- take a look?

Open wide to the next page and we'll look into some causes, treatments and tips for long-term care.


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.


At-home and In-office Gum Care

dentist treating patient
Determining the root of the problem often requires a visit to -- and sometimes treatment from -- the dentist.
Stockbyte/Getty Images

Getting to the root of gum soreness usually involves a little bit of self-examination and often professional follow-up. Sores in the mouth from accidental biting or too much hot or acidic food, for instance, have a more obvious cause and relief: Refrain from eating irritating foods and wait for the sores to heal.

Those mouth ulcers mentioned earlier might require antibiotics and specialized rinses for combating bacteria, as can many physically connected oral problems such as dry mouth or hormonal changes. Aside from gingivitis and gum disease that result from poor brushing and flossing habits, some sources of gum pain need dental and medical attention. Taking additional vitamins, focusing on diet and scheduling more frequent teeth cleanings during pregnancy is one example.


Sometimes gum irritation is treatable with simple home remedies such as rinsing with salt water, using a water-pressure, inter-tooth device, or massaging gums with picks, rubber tips and other gum tissue stimulants. At first sign of pain, many find relief with over the counter (OTC) analgesics, which can be applied topically, but when OTC products don't work or the condition doesn't improve, a dentist may prescribe anti-bacterial rinses, a below gum cleaning called scaling or a trip to the periodontist for further treatment.

One reaction to gum soreness can actually cause an escalation of the problem. If pain in the mouth stems from gingivitis, and pockets between teeth and gums are widening, many people tend to go overboard by ramping up brushing and flossing routines. Unfortunately, more brushing and flossing can damage gum tissue if it's done too vigorously or with rapid motions that tear at the gums.

Angling the brush gently into the area where teeth and gum meet and circling gently will clean plaque residue after eating. Flossing with gentle twining around the tooth, rather than jerking the floss way down into the gums and back up, also rids the teeth and gumline of residue and bacteria [source: ADA]. Teeth get cleaner and breath gets fresher with better technique, not harder brushing more often.

In all but extreme cases, the prognosis for sore gums is good to great -- tissues can heal and pockets can shrink. If a painful mouth doesn't get better within a few days, it is advisable to have a professional take a look. Early intervention can prevent costly fixes and keep your mouth healthy for eating and drinking without pain, which means you can keep your eye on your tight jean pockets instead of those dental pockets.


Lots More Information

Related Articles
More Great Links

  • American Academy of Periodontology (AAP). "Maintaining Healthy Teeth and Gums Is a Wise Investment." Perio.org. June 28, 2010. (Sept. 22, 2011) http://www.perio.org/consumer/stress09.htm
  • 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
  • Hicks, Rob. "Mouth Ulcers." BBC.co.uk. May 2008. (Sept. 22, 2011) http://www.bbc.co.uk/health/physical_health/conditions/mouthulcers1.shtml
  • 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
  • Nemours Foundation. "Gum Disease." KidsHealth.org. 2011. (Sept. 22, 2011) http://kidshealth.org/teen/diseases_conditions/mouth/gum_disease.html