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By Gerra Lewis

Q: My dentist says I am starting to develop periodontal disease. Can you tell me more about this?

A: Periodontal disease (aka periodontitis or gum disease) is an infection of the gum tissue. It can be a serious condition that may lead to destruction of the bone in the jaw and loss of teeth.

Gum disease is common, but is often preventable. Proper oral hygiene can drastically reduce your chances of developing this condition.

Oral hygiene can also limit the progression of gum disease that has already started to develop. Periodontal disease is linked to several other health conditions, which makes oral hygiene important for overall health.

There are lots of bacteria in your mouth, most of which are harmless, but some of these bacteria can cause disease. Typically, good oral hygiene and the body’s natural defenses keep bacteria in check. Without proper oral hygiene, levels of bacteria can increase, leading to gum disease and tooth decay.

Your oral health can provide clues about your overall health. Infections in the mouth can be linked to infections in other parts of your body, such as the lining of your heart (endocarditis). People with gum disease are almost twice as likely to have coronary artery disease as those who don’t. Pregnant women with gum disease are more likely to deliver prematurely. Frail, elderly people with periodontitis may develop pneumonia due to the high levels of bacteria present in the mouth.

People with certain chronic conditions can be prone to gum disease. For example, an individual who has diabetes is more likely to have gum disease than someone without diabetes. Furthermore, diabetic patients with poor blood sugar control are more apt to develop severe periodontitis than those who keep their blood sugar levels under control.  A number of conditions predispose someone to gum disease, including rheumatoid arthritis, cancer, osteoporosis and Alzheimer’s disease.

Early signs of gum disease include bleeding or puffy gums, mouth sores, receding gums, an unpleasant taste in your mouth and bad breath. In advanced disease, the teeth may decay to the point of falling out.

Regular teeth brushing and flossing will help maintain a healthier mouth, resulting in better overall health.  A healthy diet can improve your oral health. Routine dental checkups are important. It’s advisable to tell your dentist about changes to your overall health and provide information about any medications (prescription or over the counter) you take.

Dentists can look for signs of tooth decay or gum disease and will also check for signs of mouth cancer. Dental hygienists are a vital part of the oral care team. They focus on periodontitis prevention by providing detailed advice about best oral hygiene practices. Also, professional cleaning helps eliminate plaque and tartar, which can lead to tooth decay and gum disease.

Gerra Lewis volunteers with the Grillo Center, which offers free, confidential research to assist in health understanding and decisions. To use this service, contact grillocenter.org or 303-415-7293. No research or assistance should be interpreted as medical advice. We encourage informed consultation with a health practitioner.

Where to find it

Mayo Clinic

mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/periodontitis/symptoms-causes/syc-20354473

Google: periodontitis mayo

mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/adult-health/in-depth/dental/art-20047475

Google: mayo clinic oral health

Oral Health Foundation

www.dentalhealth.org/healthy-gums-and-healthy-body

Google: oral health foundation gums and body

Massachusetts Dental Societymassdental.org/Public/Oral-Health-Topics/Oral-Health-Is-Overall-Health

Google: mass dental oral health overall

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