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What Is Gingivitis? - Causes, Symptoms & Treatment

Instructor: Danielle Haak

Danielle has a PhD in Natural Resource Sciences and a MSc in Biological Sciences

We know gingivitis is something we don't want...but what is it? Read this lesson to find out what gingivitis is, what causes it, what the symptoms are, and how to treat it.

What is Gingivitis?

If you have ever visited the dentist, chances are you have heard the term gingivitis! You may have even experienced some form of gingivitis in the past. Gingivitis is a disease that causes swelling, redness, and pain in the gums. It is also known as periodontal disease. Cases can range from mild to severe, and in very mild cases, the patient may not be aware they even suffer from the disease. So, if you've ever experienced painful gums (or bleeding gums when you brush or floss), you may have had a bout of gingivitis! If left untreated, gingivitis can evolve into a more serious disease called periodontitis. Periodontitis is a serious infection of the gums that weakens the tissues and bone that hold your teeth in place.

Causes of Gingivitis

The most common cause of gingivitis is improper oral hygiene (such as lack of tooth brushing, flossing, and regular dental check-ups and cleanings). Improper tooth care results in a buildup of plaque. Plaque is a sticky substance composed of bacteria that develops as a film on the surface of the tooth. If it's not properly removed, plaque hardens and becomes more difficult to brush loose, which is called tartar. Tartar then builds up on the teeth, especially along the area the teeth meet the gums. Regular dental cleanings break up tartar that has formed over time. If left to build up uncontrollably, plaque and tartar eventually irritate the tissue found at the base of your teeth. This tissue is called gingiva. Thus, when this tissue is irritated, the condition becomes known as gingivitis.

Anyone can develop gingivitis, but there are certain risk factors that increase the probability of the condition forming. In addition to poor oral hygiene, smoking, age, diabetes, immune disorders, infections, hormonal changes, and poor nutrition may also enhance the likelihood of gingivitis developing.

Symptoms of Gingivitis

We've learned what gingivitis is, as well as what causes it, but what are the symptoms once gingivitis develops? Healthy gums are firm to the touch and pale pink in color. Gums infected with gingivitis become reddened (and even dark red in severe cases), puffy or swollen, painful, tender to the touch, bleed easily, and may contribute to bad breath. If caught early enough, these symptoms are reversible. If periodontitis forms from untreated gingivitis, eventually the gums will be incapable of holding the teeth and tooth loss will occur.

Gingivitis results in swollen, reddened gums, as seen here.
gingivitis symptoms

Treatment Options

Gingivitis sounds horrible, so prevention is the best treatment! As stated above, this is done by regularly visiting the dentist so that oral health can be properly evaluated. But what happens once a person has been diagnosed with gingivitis? The dentist will do a very in-depth and thorough cleaning to remove as much plaque and tartar as possible. It may be necessary to return for a follow-up cleaning sooner than usual. Unfortunately, these cleanings are painful and often result in bleeding and soreness. However, if oral hygiene improves afterwards, gingivitis is usually reversible and the gums will heal.

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