Gingivitis is inflammation of the gums (gingiva). This condition is extremely common. According to the CDC, more than 50 percent of Americans over the age of 30 have some form of gum inflammation or infection. Gingivitis by itself is not necessarily considered gum disease since it is a single symptom that may resolve without progressing to periodontitis. The problem usually occurs due to irritation from tartar, but is occasionally a sign of other systemic immune system problems or simply an allergic reaction. However, you should always treat gingivitis as a potential symptom that you are at risk for developing periodontitis.

How Can You Identify Gingivitis?

Healthy gingival tissue is pink (the exact shade will vary based on skin pigmentation). The gums are the same color in all areas of the mouth. The edges of the gums will be smoothly tapered to meet the surface of the teeth. When gingivitis develops, the gums will often turn red and become swollen. The edges of the gums may be puffed up away from the surface of the teeth. The gums will often bleed during brushing and flossing, and the texture of the gums changes from firm to slightly soft. You may notice that your gums are tender, or there may be no discomfort at all. Halitosis (bad breath) may accompany gingivitis if the cause is bacterial. As the condition worsens, the gums may begin to pull away from the teeth.

What Causes Gingivitis?

Gum inflammation is usually caused by a buildup of plaque along the gum line. Plaque is created when naturally occurring oral bacteria feed on sugar and carbs in your diet and form a film on your teeth. If this biofilm is not removed through daily brushing and flossing, it hardens to become tartar. This hardened plaque causes persistent irritation where the gums meet the teeth. Eventually, this inflammation can become severe and lead to the development of bacterial deposits between the gums and the teeth (periodontitis).

Who Is Most Likely to Get Gingivitis?

There are many factors that can increase your risk of developing gingivitis. If you have a family history of gum disease, you are more likely to develop this condition. Tobacco use, substance abuse and some medications that cause dry mouth can make gum inflammation more likely. Hormonal changes, old age and diseases like diabetes or autoimmune disorders can increase this risk, as well. Dental problems such as improperly fitted dental prosthetics can also cause irritation. Occasionally, the ingredients found in toothpastes can cause gum inflammation in individuals who are allergic or sensitive to detergents.

How Is Gingivitis Treated?

Removal of tartar buildup is the first step your dentist will take to help resolve gingivitis. This is a normal part of all in-office dental cleanings and can be a simple procedure if the buildup is minimal. When significant amounts of tartar are present, the process of scraping it off can be more time consuming. Because the gums are already swollen and sensitive, you may experience bleeding and discomfort during the cleaning. However, this usually resolves quickly after the cleaning is finished.

Your dentist will give you instructions for cleaning your teeth properly at home to treat gum inflammation and help prevent it from returning. This includes brushing twice a day and flossing at least once a day. It’s not uncommon for patients to develop gingivitis even if they do brush frequently. That’s because they may be using the wrong technique to remove plaque.

An electric toothbrush with soft bristles may make it easier to clean your teeth effectively. The vibrating motion of the brush is ideal for loosening plaque and getting into crevices between teeth without causing undue irritation to the gums. You may wish to use a combination of dental floss and dental picks or irrigators to remove plaque and food from between your teeth and along the gum line. Your dentist may also recommend a mouthwash to cut down on the amount of bacteria in your mouth.

Ongoing Gingivitis Prevention

If there are underlying medical conditions or lifestyle habits contributing to your gingivitis, these will also need to be addressed. For example, if you eat a lot of sugary or starchy foods, you may wish to cut back on these foods or brush after each snack. Smoking cessation can help your gums heal faster. If you suffer from dry mouth, your dentist may recommend home remedies to help keep your gums moist. With prompt and appropriate treatment, early gingivitis is likely to resolve completely within a few of weeks. If your symptoms don’t go away (or if they get worse), you should follow up with your dentist.