What Is Periodontal Disease?

Q: I hear the words "periodontal disease" from time to time, but what does it really mean?

A: Periodontal disease really refers to more than one disease. It's a large collection of diseases involving your gums and the bones inside your mouth, says Ikramuddin Aukhil, B.D.S., M.S., a periodontologist.

In most cases, inflammation is involved. That inflammation is usually caused by an infection. If left untreated, periodontal disease leads to receding gums. It causes erosion of the bone that surrounds and supports your teeth. Periodontal disease can arise for many reasons. The main causes are poor dental hygiene and smoking. In more severe forms, genetics may be a factor. In other instances, gum inflammation is caused by dehydration of the mouth. This happens in people who breathe through the mouth while sleeping. Medications used to treat seizure disorders, some neurologic disorders, high blood pressure, and depression can cause gum tissues to become unhealthy. Be sure to tell your dentist or periodontist the names and doses of any medications you are taking.

Most cases in adults

Q: Is there a typical age range for patients with periodontal diseases?

A: Periodontal diseases can occur at any age, but most cases are in adults, Dr. Aukhil says. Gingivitis is the earliest, most easily reversed form of periodontal disease. It is often diagnosed in children when hormonal changes occur and oral hygiene may be inadequate. As kids mature and their social lives change, their attention to oral hygiene usually improves and periodontal diseases may begin to subside. Most periodontal diseases are diagnosed in middle age; more than 50 percent are 55 years old and older. Symptoms, which may not be present in the early stages, include bleeding gums, a bad mouth odor, loosening or hypersensitive teeth, and difficulty chewing. Early diagnosis is critical for successful treatment.

Good home care

Q: What kind of treatment is available for periodontal diseases?

A: The first line of defense is good oral care at home, Dr. Aukhil says. You should brush twice a day and floss once a day. It is also important to avoid smoking. Tell your health care provider or dentist about any changes in your mouth that may be a side effect of medications. Stress reduction also helps. You should see your dentist every three to six months to have your teeth cleaned. In some cases, minor surgery may be needed to treat periodontal disease. Antibiotics aren't usually prescribed unless cleaning and surgical methods don't work. Left untreated, periodontal diseases can lead to loss of teeth, and to gums and bone that may not be able to support implants or dentures. Chronic periodontal diseases may even contribute to general health problems.

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