Gingivitis affects almost everyone, but the initial symptoms are so mild that many people don't realize there's anything wrong. So what is gingivitis? It's an oral infection, characterized by tender, swollen gums that bleed easily and have begun to recede from your teeth.
Gingivitis is caused by plaque buildup, and plaque is microscopic wads of bacteria, mucus and food particles that form in your mouth every day and stick to your teeth. In the warm, moist environment of your mouth, the bacteria proliferate and produce toxins that attack and irritate your gums [source: NCBI].
In addition to the physical impact that gingivitis has on your gums, it makes your breath stink, and if you don't get it under control, it develops into a more serious condition called periodontitis, or periodontal (gum) disease. At this stage, the bacteria are underneath the gum, and they attack the soft tissue and bone that support teeth, which can cause tooth loss.
Bacteria from gingivitis can enter your bloodstream and cause additional health effects, including heart disease and lung and respiratory problems. The bacteria also release toxins that can trigger premature labor and delivery and low birth weight in babies [sources: Mayo Clinic, Zamora]. Recent research even connects chronic periodontal disease with the development of Alzheimer's disease [source: Kamer, et al].
To cure gingivitis, you've got to get rid of the plaque. The five habits on the following pages will help you get rid of the condition and keep it from coming back.
Regular, effective teeth-brushing, twice daily, is your first line of defense against gingivitis and step one in curing it. Unfortunately, the symptoms of gingivitis -- tender, bleeding gums -- cause people to slack off on brushing. That's the wrong move. Brushing cleans away bacteria on the surface of your teeth and helps keep it from getting a foothold between teeth and under your gums. With regular care, the tenderness and bleeding should stop within a week or two. Gargling with warm saltwater or an antibacterial mouthwash helps reduce the swelling [source: NCBI].
So what, exactly, is effective brushing? Start with a toothbrush and fluoride toothpaste that have the American Dental Association seal of approval. Toothpastes containing essential oils, as well as fluoride, are even better at fighting gingivitis. Then:
- Don't rush through the process. Spend at least 2 minutes brushing, giving full attention to each section of your mouth.
- Brush in small circles on the front, back and chewing surfaces of your teeth. Teeth are contoured, not flat; angle your brush to work all parts of the surface and get between teeth as much as possible.
- Tilt your toothbrush up (for top teeth) or down (for bottom teeth) at a 45-degree angle to work bristles under your gums.
- Brush your tongue. All those taste buds on your tongue give germs tons of surface area to grab on to, and they don't let go unless you scrape them off. Brushing your tongue also helps significantly freshen your breath.
After brushing, your mouth should feel clean and fresh, but you're not finished yet. Keep reading for step two in curing and preventing gingivitis.
Gingivitis generally starts between the teeth, where your toothbrush is less effective at cleaning away bacteria. That's why daily flossing is important. Dental floss gets between your teeth and under your gum line to remove plaque that's out of reach of a toothbrush, even if you brush thoroughly.
If you don't remove plaque daily, it hardens into tartar, which requires a professional dental cleaning to remove [source: Mayo Clinic]. Left in place long enough, that tartar can grow deep under your gums and onto the roots of your teeth, where even a professional cleaning can't get to it. Then you'll have to endure a dental procedure called root planing and scaling, which involves sharp tools and sometimes placement of antibiotic fibers between your teeth and gums. The fibers have to be removed about a week later, so we're talking pain and at least two trips to the dentist [source: WebMD].
If that's just not your cup of tea, use these moves to get the best cleaning from your flossing routine:
- Start with about 18 inches (45.7 centimeters) of floss.
- Wrap the floss around your index fingers, leaving a long tail hanging down.
- Work the floss gently between teeth and up into the gum line to disrupt bacteria.
- Scrape the floss down sides of teeth, bending it slightly to curve into the front and back surfaces.
- Rewrap the floss around your fingers to a clean spot and repeat for all teeth.
- Work all the way around your upper and lower teeth and gums, including both sides of those very back teeth.
Don't leave the sink just yet! Keep reading for the next step.
You're well on your way to a bacteria-free mouth, and this last teeth-cleaning practice is easy. It's just swish and spit, but it's also very important. After brushing and flossing, rinse your mouth with an antibacterial mouthwash, which helps destroy bacteria that cause plaque and gingivitis. In a six-month clinical trial, rinsing with mouthwash that contains essential oils (such as Listerine Antiseptic or Dr. Tichenor's) reduced the buildup between dentist visits [source: Charles, et al]. These essential oils slip between teeth to kill bacteria that evade your toothbrush and flossing routine. The same study also showed that mouthwash with chlorhexidine had antiplaque and antigingivitis activity, but it can stain teeth.
If you have trouble getting floss between your teeth, mouthwash is an effective runner-up method of removing bacteria -- but flossing and mouthwash work best when they work together.
With your sink routine down, you can start practicing these next remedies that help combat gingivitis.
Somewhere between 75 and 85 percent of adult Americans develop gingivitis, and it progresses to moderate to severe periodontitis in 30 percent of the population [sources: ADHA, Sutton]. By far, the most common cause is poor oral hygiene. Establishing a regular brushing and flossing routine cuts your chances of getting gum disease. However, certain lifestyle behaviors can increase your risk. These risk factors include:
- Poor nutrition -- Poor nutrition lowers your body's ability to fight off invading germs, including the germs that cause gingivitis. Certain food choices directly affect your teeth, too. Sugary foods stick like glue to tooth enamel and attract and feed mouth bacteria; foods high in acid eat away tooth enamel.
- Stress -- Just like poor nutrition, stress lowers your immunity and gives bacteria a better chance to grow in your mouth. Stress can also disrupt your routines, causing you to skip brushing and flossing.
Improving your health through smart food choices and stopping unhealthy habits like smoking go a long way toward preventing gingivitis. But there's still one more step.
Even if you take extra-good care of your teeth and gums at home, you still need to visit your dentist twice a year. If you have risk factors for developing gingivitis such as diabetes, smoking or a family history of gum disease, you may need to go more often. A professional cleaning at your dentist's office gets rid of plaque that your routine brushing and flossing may miss, and it's the only way to remove hardened tartar from your teeth. After assessing your oral health, your dentist may make further recommendations for keeping gingivitis at bay, such as using a special toothpaste or mouthwash.
In addition to cleaning your teeth, your dental hygienist will check your mouth for signs of oral cancer, a serious and common cancer that's frequently curable when detected in the early stages. You'll probably be asked about health changes, too -- some serious health conditions, like HIV and osteoporosis, are often first detected by changes in your oral health [source: ADHA].
These home remedies will aid in fighting gingivitis, but it's not a one-time thing. Gingivitis is always lurking just around the next bicuspid, waiting for a chance to come back. Establishing a thorough oral health routine that includes all these steps will help keep your teeth, gums and overall health in good condition.
A new way to brush your teeth? HowStuffWorks looks at toothpaste tablets.
More Great Links
- American Dental Association. "Pregnant? Tips for Keeping Your Smile Healthy." Journal of the American Dental Association. January 2004, p. 127. (Aug. 25, 2011) http://www.ada.org/sections/publicResources/pdfs/patient_34.pdf
- American Dental Hygienists Association (ADHA). "Oral Health -- Total Health: Know the Connection." (Aug. 24, 2011) http://www.adha.org/media/facts/total_health.htm
- Charles, C.H., et al. "Comparative antiplaque and antigingivitis effectiveness of a chlorhexidine and an essential oil mouthrinse: 6-month clinical trial." Journal of Clinical Periodontology. October 2004. Vol. 31, Issue 10, pp. 878-884. (Aug. 24, 2011)http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1600-051X.2004.00578.x/full
- Cure Gingivitis. "Tips to Prevent and Cure Gingivitis." (Aug. 25, 2011) http://curegingivitis.com/TipsToCureGingivitis.htm
- WebMD. "Root planing and scaling for gum disease." Aug. 21, 2009. (Aug. 30, 2011) http://www.webmd.com/oral-health/root-planing-and-scaling-for-gum-disease
- Kamer, Angela R., et al. "Inflammation and Alzheimer's disease: Possible role of periodontal disease." Alzheimer's and Dementia. Vol. 4, Issue 4. July 2008. (Aug. 30, 2011) http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1552526007006218
- Mayo Clinic. "Gingivitis." Nov. 18, 2010. (Aug. 25, 2011) http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/gingivitis/DS00363/DSECTION=symptoms
- National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI). "Gingivitis."U.S. National Library of Medicine. Feb. 22, 2010. (Aug. 25, 2011) http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmedhealth/PMH0002051/
- Rothstein, J.P. and American Dental Association. "Considerations for Treating the Dental Patient with Diabetes." American Dental Association. 2003. (Aug. 24, 2011) http://www.ada.org/sections/professionalResources/pdfs/diabetes_0309_insert.pdf
- Sutton, Julie, RDH, MS. "Secondhand Smoke and Risk for Periodontitis." American Dental Hygienists Association. May-June, 2011. (Aug. 24, 2011) http://www.adha.org/publications/strive/05-06-2011-strive.htm
- Zamora, Dulce. "The Health Perils of Gum Disease." WebMD. 2005. (Aug. 24, 2011) http://www.webmd.com/heart-disease/features/health-perils-of-gum-disease