A gum infection is a harmful infection in the mouth that causes damage and inflammation in the gums and jaw.
Gum infections generally arise from poor dental hygiene over time, as this can allow bacteria to become lodged between the gums and teeth, where it will grow freely. However, several other factors play a role in gum infections and gum disease.
Working with a dentist to prevent or treat gum infections is important to avoid complications. Anyone who suspects that they have a gum infection should see their dentist.
This article discusses the causes, treatment, and prevention of gum infections and explains when to see a dentist.
A gum infection is an accumulation of bacteria in the tissue around the teeth.
The mouth is full of different types of bacteria. Daily hygiene practices, including brushing and flossing the teeth, help control the levels of bacteria, keeping the mouth, teeth, and gums healthy and preventing tooth decay.
Without these efforts, bacteria form a film around the teeth called plaque. If a person does not clean off plaque, it can harden and turn into tartar, which is very hard to remove.
The buildup of tartar makes it more difficult to clean the teeth, which makes it even easier for bacteria to invade the area around the teeth and gums.
The buildup of the bacteria under the gumline can easily lead an area to become infected.
It is oral hygiene practices that help clear out this bacteria to prevent infection. Therefore, poor oral hygiene directly contributes to tooth decay and oral disease.
The National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research note that smoking is the most significant other risk factor for gum disease in general. Additionally, smoking may make treatments less effective.
Other risk factors that may contribute to gum infections include:
- hormonal changes in women, such as those during pregnancy
- crooked teeth
- medications that make the mouth dry or slow the flow of saliva
In some cases, oral devices may contribute to risk as well. For instance, dentures or bridges that do not fit properly can be problematic, as can dental fillings that are defective.
The symptoms of a gum infection may vary depending on how advanced it is and its location. A gum infection is a sign of overall poor oral health and gum disease.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) note that gingivitis is the early stage of gum disease. Gingivitis is the medical term for inflammation in the gums. Although it is not technically an infection at this stage, gingivitis may lead to infections or more advanced periodontal disease, called periodontitis.
Gingivitis typically causes red, puffy gums that may bleed easily, such as when the person brushes their teeth. Some people may not notice the issue much at first. However, if the inflammation progresses into infection in the area, symptoms may become more apparent.
Other signs of gum infection or gum disease include:
- pain while chewing
- spitting out blood after brushing the teeth
- seeing a pink tinge to the toothpaste when spitting it out
- sensitive teeth
- loose teeth
- bad breath that does not go away
- receding gums
- pus discharge in the mouth
- changes in how a person bites or how their teeth fit together when they chew
- changes in the fitting of partial dentures
Infections may lead to the formation of a pocket of pus called an abscess, which requires prompt treatment. A person with an abscess may experience painful swelling and discharge of pus in the mouth.
Untreated infections may lead to complications. For example, infected tissue may put the root of a nearby tooth at risk, which could lead to the complete loss of the tooth.
Additionally, infections from infected gum tissue may spread to the jaw or surrounding bone, potentially damaging the tissue. The bacteria may also enter the bloodstream and cause issues in other parts of the body.
Periodontal disease may have links to other issues in the body if a person does not receive treatment. Many studies have investigated a link between periodontal disease and various other health problems, such as:
- cardiovascular diseases
- issues with pregnancy
- respiratory disease, such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)
Periodontal disease may increase risk factors for these issues, or these issues may be more prevalent among people with periodontal disease. This relationship does not necessarily indicate that one causes the other, though.
It is important to treat a gum infection promptly to avoid complications.
The CDC note that good oral hygiene and regular professional cleanings can control and treat earlier forms of periodontal disease, such as gingivitis.
If plaque turns into tartar, a dentist will need to clean it off the teeth. Breaking apart this hardened tartar helps a person control inflammation and damage in the gums with their daily brushing and flossing.
A gum infection, or periodontitis, may require treatment in the form of deep cleaning in the gums and pockets around the teeth. Cleaning out any abscesses that are present will also be necessary. Some cases may require the dentist to remove areas of the gums or tissues.
More severe and persistent infections may need treatment with oral antibiotics. In some cases, dentists may inject antibiotics directly into the area to help clear out the infection.
Advanced cases may require surgery, such as bone or tissue grafts, to avoid or repair damage to the jaw.
As part of treatment for a gum infection, dentists may advise people to maintain good oral hygiene at home to help control the infection.
Proper oral hygiene involves:
- brushing the teeth at least twice a day
- using a medicated mouthwash
- flossing after meals
- rinsing the mouth with fresh water after meals
- swishing warm salt water around the mouth to help reduce swelling and kill bacteria
Regular professional dental cleanings and good oral hygiene are both important preventive measures for gum infections, as they help control bacteria in the mouth.
The American Dental Association list some general oral health tips to keep the teeth and gums healthy, including:
- quitting smoking
- brushing the teeth twice daily with a fluoride toothpaste
- removing plaque between the teeth using dental floss, toothpicks, or a water flosser
- regularly visiting the dentist for checkups and professional cleaning
- limiting the intake of sugary foods and beverages
There is no guarantee that these efforts will prevent gum infections. However, they may help reduce the manageable risk factors for these infections.
Anyone who suspects that they have a gum infection should see their dentist as soon as possible.
Even in the early stages of periodontal disease, such as gingivitis, it is important to see a dentist without delay to help prevent the issue from progressing.
Gum infections occur due to a buildup of bacteria in and around the gums.
People can take steps to help prevent gum infections, such as practicing good oral hygiene and avoiding tobacco.
Seeing a dentist for regular checkups is also important because they can help break away tartar to prevent infection.
Anyone who notices symptoms of a gum infection or gingivitis should see their dentist immediately. Early diagnosis and treatment help prevent complications, such as tooth or tissue loss.