A substance that forms on teeth called plaque causes gingivitis. Plaque is a sticky material, composed of bacteria, mucus, food, and other substances. It hardens to form tartar or calculus. When plaque is left on the teeth for an extended period of time, it can lead to gingivitis. Toxins produced by bacteria in dental plaque irritate the gum tissue and cause infection, inflammation, and pain.
Gingivitis is more common in older adults, especially men.
Factors that increase your risk of gingivitis include:
Gingivitis is often painless, with symptoms developing when it becomes worse.
Symptoms may include:
Swollen, puffy gums
Redness in the gums or around the teeth
Bleeding gums during brushing or eating
Gum tissue that recedes or changes shape
Persistent bad breath
Teeth that are loose or separating
The dentist will examine your teeth and gums, assessing them for swelling and areas where the tissue is pulling away from the teeth, forming a pocket. The dentist may probe trouble spots to see how deep the pockets are. X-rays can assess potential damage. Early diagnosis of the problem enables prompt treatment and the possibility of reversing the condition.
Gingivitis therapy aims to remove the irritating plaque and prevent its return.
Regular dental check-ups and good oral hygiene
Careful and frequent brushing and flossing
A healthful diet that is low in saturated fat and rich in whole grains, fruits, and vegetables
Thoroughly brush and floss your teeth with a fluoride toothpaste. Use a soft-bristled toothbrush or a powered toothbrush held at a 45-degree angle to the line where your teeth and gums meet. Replace the brush or powered toothbrush bristles when the bristles become bent, frayed, or every 3-4 months. Move the brush in small circular movements along the gumline and chewing surfaces of your teeth.
Brushing removes bacteria from the teeth, but the brush cannot reach everywhere. Flossing helps get rid of food and bacteria between teeth. Hold the floss tightly. Gently bring it down between the teeth. Do not pop the floss against the gum. Curve the floss around the tooth and rub up and down. Adjust the floss, so you use a fresh section for each tooth, including the back side of the last tooth, left and right, upper and lower.
The dentist may advise additional self-care treatments, such as massaging the gums with a rubber tip or an interdental brush. Rinses to fight bacteria and plaque build-up may help some patients.
Dental health professionals check for gingivitis and remove plaque that has built up on teeth. A visit every 6 months is usually considered adequate. Patients with gingivitis may need more frequent cleanings. If the disease progresses and plaque builds up below the gum line, the area must be scraped off and smoothed with dental tools. Otherwise, plaque and tartar build-up make it easier for bacteria to grow.
If an area has progressed to
periodontal disease, surgery or medication (usually antibiotics) may be required. Treating an underlying medical problem may improve the health of your gums.
In those with recurring or persistent gingivitis, the dentist will evaluate whether some other condition which may be contributing to the gum disease.
To help reduce the chance of gingivitis:
Good dental habits:
Brush your teeth and tongue with fluoride toothpaste at least twice per day.
Use a soft-bristled toothbrush or a powered toothbrush.
Floss at least once per day.
See your dentist as advised for regular cleanings and check-ups. This is generally every 6 months.
Eat balanced, nutritious meals.
Avoid alcohol or drink in moderation. This is up to 2 drinks per day for men and 1 drink per day for women.
Gingivitis. Mouth Healthy—American Dental Association website. Available at: http://www.mouthhealthy.org/en/az-topics/g/gum-disease. Accessed January 29, 2021.
Periodontal (gum) disease: causes, symptoms, and treatments. National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research website. Available at: http://www.nidcr.nih.gov/oralhealth/topics/gumdiseases/periodontalgumdisease.htm. Accessed January 29, 2021.
Taking care of your gums. JAMA patient page. JAMA. 2000;284:1472.
Van Der Weijden F, Else Slot D. Oral hygiene in the prevention of periodontal diseases: the evidence. Periodontol 2000. 2011 Feb;55(1):104-23.
Last reviewed September 2020 by
EBSCO Medical Review Board
Shawna Grubb, RN
Last Updated: 1/29/2021
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