Gum Problems

  • Medical Author:
    Donna S. Bautista, DDS

    Dr. Donna S. Bautista, DDS, completed her undergraduate studies at the University of California, San Diego with a bachelor of arts in biochemistry and cell biology. During her time at UC San Diego, she was involved in basic research including studying processes related to DNA transcription in the field of molecular biology. Upon graduation, she went on to attend dental school at the University of California, San Francisco. In addition to her formal dental training, she provided dental care for underserved communities in the Bay Area through clinics and health fairs. She also worked toward mentoring high school students interested in the field of dentistry.

  • Medical Editor: Melissa Conrad Stöppler, MD
    Melissa Conrad Stöppler, MD

    Melissa Conrad Stöppler, MD

    Melissa Conrad Stöppler, MD, is a U.S. board-certified Anatomic Pathologist with subspecialty training in the fields of Experimental and Molecular Pathology. Dr. Stöppler's educational background includes a BA with Highest Distinction from the University of Virginia and an MD from the University of North Carolina. She completed residency training in Anatomic Pathology at Georgetown University followed by subspecialty fellowship training in molecular diagnostics and experimental pathology.

Shocking Diseases of the Mouth

Quick GuideDental Health: Top Problems in Your Mouth

Dental Health: Top Problems in Your Mouth

What causes gum problems?

A healthy mouth is host to a complex and dynamic community of bacteria. In fact, the presence of oral bacteria is generally beneficial to the well-being of the mouth. Problems begin when there is a change in the balance of the bacteria in the mouth. Oral bacteria are able to adhere to teeth and gums in the form of dental plaque, which is the soft, sticky film that forms on teeth every day. If dental plaque remains for a prolonged period of time, it turns into a hardened calcified deposit called tartar that sticks to teeth near the gums. Tartar cannot be brushed or flossed away. Furthermore, tartar creates an environment for more dental plaque to accumulate. With the overgrowth of dental plaque and buildup of tartar, the balance of oral bacteria in the mouth shifts to unhealthy proportions.

With the presence of dental plaque, the gums respond with inflammation. Our body's immune response through inflammation is the process that can ultimately lead to loss of gum attachment, or "periodontal ligament" and jawbone deterioration.

Other causes of gum problems may involve foreign bodies affecting the gums, such as poorly contoured dental work, or sensitivity to material in dental work. Viral infection can also be a cause of gum disease.

In the case of oral cancer, changes at the microscopic level within a cell can occur. Our bodies have mechanisms to destroy this abnormal cell, but sometimes, the cell is able to escape these mechanisms and progress to develop cancer.

What are the risk factors for gum problems?

Poor dental hygiene practices that allow for dental plaque to build up are directly linked to gum problems. Devices around teeth, such as dental braces (orthodontic treatment), can make it difficult to properly clean around teeth. Additional risk factors to consider are as follows:

  • Smoking: This habit is a strong factor in the progression of gum disease and oral cancer.
  • Genetics: Family history may influence who is more susceptible to gum problems.
  • Diabetes: This systemic disease may cause an individual to have a weaker defense against gum problems. Other systemic diseases such as heart disease and rheumatoid arthritis have been linked to gum problems, as well.
  • Age: Data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show that more than 70% of the U.S. population age 65 and older has gum disease.
  • Poor nutrition: Vitamin or nutrient deficiencies in diet can adversely affect the body's ability to fight off infections, including those related to the gums.
Medically Reviewed by a Doctor on 9/2/2015

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