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What is periodontal disease?

Periodontal (gum) disease is an infection of the gums that occurs when plaque builds up on our teeth. The risk of periodontal disease increases the older one gets, with men at a higher risk than women and current smokers being the most likely to suffer from the condition. A consistent oral routine of brushing and flossing may prevent the accumulation of plaque, but once it solidifies, it becomes tartar, which contains bacteria that start to attack the soft or gingival tissue surrounding the teeth. At this point, only a dental health professional can remove the tartar and stop the periodontal disease’s progression. Otherwise, the bacterium will embed itself in the gums, rapidly breeding and causing an infection that wreaks havoc on your teeth, jawbone, and tissues.

This condition is only reversible in its early stages through proper oral hygiene and regular dental cleanings. That’s why it’s important to know the early warning signs of gum disease as well as the different stages of periodontitis and what you need to do to resolve the issue.

Early Warning Signs of Periodontal Disease Stages

Dental professionals often refer to gum disease as the “silent” condition because of how subtle its symptoms are. In fact, signs pointing to gum disease typically don’t include pain, especially at the beginning, but that doesn’t mean it’s not there.

Stage One: Gingivitis

It’s at this first stage of periodontitis where the condition is reversible. That’s because the infection has not yet spread to the bone. And since unchecked bacterial growth produces an odor that’s detectable in the breath, the most common early sign of gum disease is bad breath that doesn’t go away even after brushing. Accumulation of plaque on the teeth, particularly at the gumline, may cause swelling and tenderness in the gums and even some “pink in the sink” during brushing.

Stage Two: Mild Periodontitis

At this stage, the gums become more inflamed and start to pull away from the teeth. You’ll notice deep pockets forming at the gumline. Food particles, bacteria, and plaque start accumulating in the pockets, which, if left untreated, leads to an infection that spreads to the surrounding bone.

Stage Three: Moderate Periodontitis

The third stage of periodontal disease involves regular bleeding gums, not just from brushing or flossing too hard but even from gentle touches. It’s the result of tissues growing weaker and no longer properly connecting to the teeth. Another symptom of this stage is observable gum recession along with oral discomfort like increased teeth sensitivity, persistent mouth sores, and pain when chewing.

Stage Four: Advanced Periodontitis

In the last stage, symptoms have become so severe that the patient experiences frequent pain. The infection has spread deeper into the oral tissues. Bone loss is now almost completely observable. Gums continue to recede and additional pockets have formed that provide more space for food particles, bacteria, and plaque to accumulate, continuing this vicious cycle.

Periodontal disease is just like any other chronic condition (think: hypertension or diabetes). You may suffer from it yet feel perfectly fine, at least at the beginning. However, early detection is key to controlling and treating the condition before it becomes worse. Knowing the signs and symptoms of its different stages can be an effective strategy when trying to avoid a disease that affects approximately half of adults in the US.

Diagnosis and Treatment of Gum Disease

Before coming up with any treatment plan, your periodontist (a dentist that specializes in the treatment of gum disease) will first perform a comprehensive checkup of your gums, teeth, and jawbone. Once periodontal disease is officially diagnosed, its severity will determine the course of treatment.

Gingivitis and mild periodontitis are often treated through scaling and root planing to remove debris from the gum pockets and allow them to heal. Moderate periodontitis may require more extensive scaling and sometimes root planing while under a local anesthetic. Your periodontist may also use scaling and root planing as a nonsurgical option in the treatment of advanced periodontitis. But they may also recommend surgical treatment to reduce pocket depth. If the gum disease resulted in any tooth loss, you may also require dental implants to replace the missing tooth. Patients with severely eroded bone tissue would first need a bone graft to securely hold the implant in place.

What to Do If You Suspect You Have Gum Disease

Schedule an appointment with your dentist, of course! Dr. Staley, our resident dentist in Boise, Idaho, can quickly spot early signs of periodontal disease through regular dental checkups. Even if you haven’t been to the dentist in a while, if you experience any of the symptoms in the different stages of gum disease, you should see a dentist as soon as possible. Periodontal disease is only reversible during its early stages, and seeking treatment before the condition progresses any further means you’ll be back on your feet (read: smile) much faster.