Periodontal disease or periodontitis is a condition involving the infection of the gums. It can destroy the soft tissue attachments around teeth and, ultimately, cause the supporting bone to melt away. Periodontal disease is the leading cause of tooth loss, and may place you at increased risk of heart attack and stroke.
What are the symptoms of periodontitis?
Periodontitis can make itself known by swollen, tender, bleeding, reddish or purplish gums. Gums infected with the disease can seem to recede, causing the teeth to seem more prominent than normal. Spaces can also appear between the teeth. In some some cases changes in the way the upper and lower teeth fit together can occur. Pus may ooze between the teeth and gum. People with periodontitis can also have a bad taste in their mouths and bad breath.
What causes periodontitis?
Periodontitis is caused when plaque (the sticky film of bacteria) is left on teeth for too long. The plaque, in due course, gets between the teeth and gums and hardens in the form of tartar. Everyone has some plaque, but plaque can build up quickly from sugary foods and drinks. At this point, the mildest form of the disease, caused gingivitis, begins to irritate and inflame the part of the gum that is around the base of the teeth. If left unchecked, gingivitis becomes full-bore periodontitis as more plaque, tartar, and bacteria forms in pockets between the gum and teeth. At this point, the soft tissue and bone begin to be destroyed, resulting in possible loss of teeth.
How does one prevent periodontitis?
It seems like a cliché imparted in every dentist’s office on the planet, but regular brushing and flossing is the best way to prevent any kind of disease of the teeth and gums. Plaque constantly builds up, so it constantly needs to be brushed and flossed away.
Why are people who have periodontitis more at risk for heart disease and strokes?
Researchers have noted that periodontitis makes one more prone to heart disease and strokes. The theory is that the same bacteria that destroys the gums and underlying bones can travel through the bloodstream and attach themselves on the plaque in blood vessels. This, in turn, causes inflammation and the creation of clots that cause heart attacks and strokes. Also, people with periodontitis may have compromised immune systems that can also lead to cardiovascular disease.
How is periodontitis treated?
Your dentist will perform the diagnosis based evaluation of pockets between the gums and the teeth and bone level on x-rays. If it is determined you have periodontitis, you may be referred to a periodontist (gum specialist) or if the disease has not progressed too far, you may be treated conservatively.
Scaling and root planing will be used to remove plaque and tartar from beneath the gums. You may be prescribed a course of antibiotics.
If your periodontitis is advanced, a number of surgical procedures are available to reduce the pockets where bacteria have grown and to restore, to some extent, the soft tissue and bone that have been destroyed by the disease.
Whatever your dentist recommends, you will be advised to begin a rigorous regimen of tooth brushing and flossing, preferably after every meal. Periodontal disease often cannot be cured, but, just like high blood pressure, it can usually be controlled through excellent home care and professional periodontal cleanings three or four times a year.
Peter J. Samuels is a local Gettysburg dentist and a clinical instructor at the University of Maryland School of Dentistry.