Dad Gum It

By Anna Sachse

Posted January 15, 2009 in Mind Body Spirit

The other day I was doing a little pub trivia and one of the questions was: “What is the most common human disease in the United States?” We answered diabetes. We were wrong. The answer was periodontal disease—i.e. gum disease. This seems ludicrous when you consider the plethora of toothpastes, mouthwashes, fancy toothbrushes and dental flosses on the market. 


So I did a little research and found out that my trivia master was wrong. As it turns out, periodontal disease is the second most common disease, after the common cold and flu. But unlike colds and the flu, gum disease doesn’t go away after a week or two. More than one third of folks over the age of 30 have some form of the disease, and it’s responsible for 80 percent of tooth loss in people over the age of 35. 


According to the National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research, periodontal diseases range from simple gum inflammation to major damage to the soft tissue and bone that supports the teeth. The process by which it develops is very simple. Along with mucus and other particles, the bacteria that normally exist in our mouths constantly form a sticky, colorless plaque on teeth. Plaque that isn’t removed by consistent brushing and flossing can harden and form bacteria-harboring tartar which brushing will no longer help. The longer tartar sits on your teeth, the more harmful it becomes. The bacteria cause inflammation of the gums called gingivitis—red, swollen gums that bleed easily. This mild form of gum disease can usually be reversed with regular cleaning by a dentist, in addition to daily brushing and flossing. 


But when gingivitis isn’t treated, it can advance to periodontitis, in which the gums pull away from the teeth and form infected pockets (which is really gross). Your immune system fights the bacteria as the plaque spreads and grows below the gum line. At this point, both bacterial toxins and the body’s own enzymes start to break down the bone and connective tissue that hold teeth in place. Fail to get on your gum game now and you’ll likely lose your teeth. Oddly, research is also pointing to other possible health effects, such as an increased risk of heart attack or stroke, an increased risk of delivering preterm, low birth weight babies and difficulty controlling blood sugar levels. 


Regardless, dealing with just the mouth part is far from fun. Best case scenario, you get to visit the dentist for a deep-cleaning that involves scaling and root planing. Scaling means scraping off the tartar from above and below the gum line; root planing gets rid of rough spots on the tooth root where the germs gather, and helps remove bacteria that contribute to the disease. If things have gotten really bad, you might have to have flap surgery in which the gums are lifted back to remove built-up tartar and then sutured back into place . . . or even worse, bone or tissue grafts.


You’re much better off avoiding this type of degenerative spiral in the first place. Brush your teeth twice a day, floss every day, visit the dentist at least once a year for a professional cleaning, eat a well balanced diet and don’t use tobacco products—smoking is one of the most significant risk factors associated with the development of periodontitis. Also keep an eye out for the symptoms, including red, swollen or tender gums that bleed easily, gums that have pulled away from the teeth, persistent bad breath and/or loose or separating teeth.


And if you don’t believe me now, check out the picture of periodontal disease at It seriously made me throw up a little in my mouth. 






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