Protect your gums, Dad gummit

by Karen Bowen

As a child, I spent a lot of time with my grandfather. ‘Dad gummit’ was his favourite expression when things weren’t going well. Later, ‘Dad gummit’ became one of his grandchildrens’ favourite expressions when teasing him about his new dentures. Although he always smiled at our joke, having teeth pulled and getting dentures was no laughing matter.

Avoid my grandfather’s experience. Considering the following information may help you save your teeth. Tooth loss, in adults, is most often caused by gum disease (periodontal disease or periodontitis). Periodontal disease is quite common -mild to moderate forms affect 30-50% of adults and the more severe generalized form affects 5-15% of all adults in North America.

This disease begins with plaque. Plaque, an invisible, sticky film on your teeth (composed mainly of bacteria), forms when starches and sugars in the foods you eat interact with normal mouth bacteria. Fortunately, brushing your teeth removes plaque. Unfortunately, plaque re-forms quickly, usually within 24 hours. Plaque creates an ideal breeding ground for bacteria.

When this plaque-based bacteria flourishes, it leads to periodontal disease -a localized, chronic inflammatory disease that attacks and destroys the connective tissue and bone that support the teeth. With this condition, gums separate from the teeth, forming pockets (spaces between teeth and gums) which become infected. As the disease develops, these pockets deepen and more gum tissue and bone are destroyed.

Although periodontitis begins with a bacterial infection, it is your body fighting the infection that really damages the tissues. Once an infection is established, your body’s immune system kicks in, initiating a process that breaks down the tissues that support the teeth. How severe the disease becomes is determined by environmental and genetic factors, as well as: smoking, anxiety, depression, obesity, diabetes mellitus and exposure to tobacco.

The following signs suggest periodontitis: bad breath; a bad taste in the mouth; swollen, red or purplish gums; bleeding gums; receding gums; abscessed gums; growing gaps between the teeth; and teeth that begin to look longer and longer. As the disease progresses, the affected teeth get so loose that they become painful and useless, until they either fall out by themselves, or must be pulled.

Characteristics of the four most common forms of periodontitis are seen below:

Chronic Periodontitis is the most common form. It happens over time and causes inflammation within the supporting tissues of the teeth, progressive attachment, and bone loss. It is characterized by pockets forming and gingiva receding. Although it is most often found in adults, this form can occur at any age. Even though the progression of attachment loss usually occurs slowly, there may be periods of rapid progression.

Aggressive Periodontitis is found in patients who otherwise appear healthy. This form is characterized by rapid attachment loss and bone destruction. It runs in families.

Periodontitis may be a sign of systemic diseases, especially when seen at a young age. Some examples of these diseases are: heart disease, respiratory disease, and diabetes.

Necrotizing Periodontal Disease is very severe. It is an infection characterized by necrosis (death) of gingival tissues, periodontal ligaments and alveolar bone. People who experience this are usually people with severe systemic conditions, such as: malnutrition, HIV, and immunosuppression.

You can prevent periodontitis through a program of good oral hygiene that you begin early and continue practicing consistently throughout your life. Brushing your teeth well once or twice a day will prevent, and even cure gum disease, but for this to be effective, the spaces between your teeth must also be cleaned.

Ideally, to do this, use dental floss. However as an alternative, try these products: Stimudents (thin, wooden toothpicks) or Doctors Brush Picks (white plastic picks with a brush at one end and a point at the other). Both products can be found in a drug store. Both work well because they are simple to use with one hand and no mirror. To use, wet a Stimudents with saliva before inserting it between your teeth; spin the brush of the Doctors Brush Pick between your teeth to stimulate the gums and remove plaque.

It may hurt when you first use these products, but after a week, the bleeding and pain will stop. Then, as soon as the inflammation is under control, using them will feel good. As well, swishing with mouthwash after eating can also fight plaque.

Going forward, monitor your oral health by seeing your dentist or dental hygienist regularly for cleanings (every six to 12 months). If you have any risk factors mentioned above, consider going more often. Certainly, some people are more prone to gum disease. However, good oral hygiene always prevents the disease, even for those with a genetic predisposition towards it. It’s never too late to start.

So, brush up on your oral health and keep smiling!

-Karen Bowen is a professional health and nutrition consultant , and she can be reached at

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