Feature Archive

The Health Perils of Gum Disease

Gum disease does more than endanger your teeth and gums. It can also lead to and worsen far more dangerous ills.

By Dulce Zamora
WebMD Feature

Reviewed By Charlotte Grayson

The eyes are the windows to the soul, goes the old saying. In the same way, growing research suggests, your mouth may be a kind of window to much of what happens to the rest of your body.

How exactly does the mouth reveal and even influence overall health and well-being? First, the condition of the teeth, tongue, and lips can determine how we talk, how we eat, what we eat, how we kiss, and how we go about our daily lives, says William Maas, DDS, MPH, director of the CDC's Division of Oral Health.

"There are children at school right now who can't quite concentrate on what the teacher is talking about because they have a nagging toothache," says Maas. "Maybe somebody at work is not functioning as well as they could [for the same reason]."

Sally Cram, DDS, a spokeswoman for the American Dental Association (ADA), agrees. "We can no longer think of the mouth as not part of the overall body, because so much that goes on in the mouth can affect the overall health in the body."

Cram cites research that links gum disease with heart disease, diabetes, lung problems, and premature and low-birth-weight babies. Helena Gallant Tripp, RDH, president of the American Dental Hygienists' Association (ADHA), says, "In bulimic patients [who] induce vomiting, you see the acid wearing away the inner surface of their teeth. You can pick up osteoporosis [bone thinning] in dental X-rays."

To further explain how the mouth and the body seem to share such a close relationship, let's start with the basics of oral health and what can go wrong in the mouth.

What Goes Wrong in the Mouth: Gum Disease

Many people worry about cavities, but periodontal disease can also be a big problem for people with poor oral hygiene.

Gum disease is an infection of the tissues supporting the teeth. When plaque develops, bacteria irritate the gums and cause them to swell. In the beginning, the disease is called gingivitis and only affects the gums. In more advanced phases, the disease is known as periodontitis. The bacteria go under the gum line, eventually attacking the tissues and bone around the teeth. This can lead to tooth loss.

Nearly 75% of American adults have some form of periodontal disease, reports the ADHA. The symptoms of gum disease can be so mild that some people don't know they have it. According to the ADA, warning signs include:

  • Gums that bleed easily
  • Red, swollen, tender gums
  • Gums that have pulled away from the teeth
  • Persistent bad breath or bad taste
  • Permanent teeth that are loose or separating
  • Any change in the way your teeth fit together when you bite
  • Any change in the fit of partial dentures

Besides poor oral hygiene, several factors raise the risk of periodontal disease:

  • Smoking/tobacco use
  • Genetics
  • Stress
  • Medication use, such as oral contraceptives (the pill) and steroids (such as those people with asthma take)
  • Poor nutrition
  • Diseases that affect multiple organs, such as diabetes
  • Pregnancy and puberty
  • Clenching or grinding teeth
  • Bridges that no longer fit properly
  • Crooked teeth
  • Defective fillings

Regular professional checkups of the mouth can help detect, prevent, and treat gum disease and the disorders that go along with it.

Preventing periodontal disease may have benefits besides keeping gums and teeth in mint condition.

"There's no question that good periodontal health is good for overall health and well-being," says Gordon Douglass, DDS, past president of the American Academy of Periodontology (AAP).

To show how gum disease can harm the rest of the body, Douglass suggests curving your hand around a pen, and imagining the pen as a tooth, and the hand as the gums. There is normally little space around the gums and teeth.

In gum disease, bacteria break down the tissues around the tooth. The resulting space becomes a niche where periodontal bacteria can breed. The gums then become inflamed and bleed in an attempt to fight the infection. Yet the greater the swelling and the deeper the space between the teeth and gums, the easier it is for the periodontal bacteria to enter the bloodstream, says Douglass.