Understanding Gum Disease: Gingivitis Treatment, Symptoms and More


Gingivitis is a common but mild form of gum disease, the first sign of which is often bleeding gums. Left untreated, it can progress to a more serious condition called periodontitis – this may result in loss of teeth and the bone supporting them.

Alarmingly, data from the WHO (World Health Organization) shows more than 75% of people aged between 35 and 45 and more than half of adolescents over the age of 15 are affected by some kind of gingival problem.

Gingivitis develops when dental plaque (a film of bacteria on the teeth) isn't cleaned away properly. Fortunately, if caught in the early stages, gingivitis cures are very effective. Good oral hygiene will help stop it from recurring.

In this article you can read all about the different types of gum disease, what the symptoms are, and the best way to keep your mouth and gums healthy.

What is gingivitis?

The following gingivitis definition comes straight from a medical dictionary:

Inflammation of the gums that is often accompanied by tenderness and bleeding.

For a brief overview of the condition you can view this short video:

There are three main stages of periodontal (gum) disease. Each displays different symptoms and requires a different type of treatment.

Gingivitis is the most mild form, where the gums are inflamed rather than infected. Catching it at this stage will help prevent irreversible oral damage.

The table below summarises the different phases of gum disease. Keep reading to find out more about causes, symptoms, treatment and prevention.

GingivitisPeriodontitisAdvanced Periodontitis
Symptoms Red, swollen or bleeding gums; bad breath Tartar (calculus) build-up; receding gums; loose teeth Loose teeth; pain while eating
Severity Mild inflammation of gum tissue Infection of gum tissue Severe infection of tissue and bone
Effects on oral health No long-term effects if treated early Irreversible damage to bone and tissue Destruction of bone and tissue; possible tooth loss or misalignment
Treatment Scale and polish with a dental hygienist; better oral hygiene Scaling, root planing or dental surgery to remove infection Dental surgery, possibly bone grafts and tooth extraction
Prevention Good oral care and regular dental checkups Maintain good oral hygiene and check for gingivitis symptoms regularly Visit a dentist if you think you may have periodontal disease

What causes gum disease?

Keeping in mind that 1 in 2 American adults over 30 years of age has gum disease, it's important to know what causes it. Bacteria are constantly present in our mouths from saliva. They feed on food left in our mouths after we eat. These bacteria form a sticky, colourless film on our teeth and gums called dental plaque. Have you every tried to clean ‘furry' teeth with a fingernail? The substance you scraped off was plaque.

image of dental plaque buildup on teeth
Plaque hardens into tartar over time

If you don't clean your teeth properly, bacteria get into the space between the teeth and gums causing inflammation and swelling. Pockets sometimes form in the gums, allowing food to lodge and more plaque to build up.

Plaque hardens over time, forming a hard yellowish-white residue called ‘tartar' or ‘calculus'. This hard calcareous layer acts as a further breeding ground for bacteria to attack gum tissue.

As periodontal disease becomes more advanced, teeth may become loose and eventually fall out.

Risk factors

Although plaque is the main culprit, certain people are more susceptible to gum disease than others. Those particularly at risk include:

  • Teenage girls and menopausal women: Hormonal changes make gums more sensitive and prone to disease. This can affect all women as they go through their monthly menstrual cycle, but hormones are particularly active during puberty and menopause.
  • Postmenopausal women: A painful condition called desquamative gingivitis can affect postmenopausal women. The outer layer of the gum detaches from the teeth, leaving them loose and crooked. Nerve endings can then be exposed and cause extreme pain. Dental insurance can help lower the cost of any periodontal treatment you might need later in life.
  • Pregnant women: A nine-month dose of hormones during pregnancy means many expectant mothers notice their gums bleeding. In addition, hormonal variations may lead to localized hypertrophic gingivitis (also known as pregnancy gingivitis). This can be identified by a bright red (benign) pseudo-tumor at the base of one or more teeth that can bleed profusely.
  • People with diabetes: Studies have shown a vicious cycle here, with diabetes making periodontal disease worse, and vice versa.
  • Smokers: Smoking is responsible for as many as 50% of gum disease cases, mainly because it increases plaque levels.
  • People with vitamin deficiencies: Specifically vitamin C and vitamin B3 (niacin).
  • People under severe stress: Acute necrotizing ulcerative gingivitis (ANUG) is identifiable by acutely painful, bleeding gums. It often occurs suddenly and as a result of severe stress or a significant traumatic event.

There are other factors which may contribute to gum problems, including:

tartar on teeth with braces
This patient hasn't cleaned their teeth properly while wearing braces

If you are in any of these high-risk groups, particularly if you're pregnant or going through menopause, be sure to get regular dental checkups so your dentist can deal with any problems quickly.

Is gingivitis contagious?

It is generally understood that most people affected by gum disease have an underlying medical disease or are experiencing hormonal changes that make them more susceptible to bacteria.

But at the same time, these oral bacteria are spread through saliva. Technically, then, gingivitis can be spread by kissing or by sharing utensils and dental equipment. However, if you have healthy gums and maintain good oral health, you shouldn't be at risk of developing any kind of periodontal disease from contact with someone else.

Gingivitis symptoms

Mild gingivitis is most commonly manifested by the following symptoms:

  • Red, swollen gums
  • Purple-red patches at the gum line
  • Receding gums
  • Gums bleeding (especially during brushing, flossing or eating)
  • Constant bad breath (halitosis)
  • A bad taste in the mouth
  • Teeth sensitive to hot and cold

Periodontal disease is generally completely painless up to a fairly advanced stage – unlike most dental problems. This, coupled with the fact that there may be no visible symptoms, can make it difficult to diagnose.

advance gum disease
An advanced case of periodontal disease where the gums have receded

Because you probably won't experience any pain as a warning sign of gum problems, it's important to be familiar with and regularly check for the symptoms. Otherwise it could develop to advanced periodontitis before you realize something is wrong.

In the later stages of periodontal disease, or with specific types of gingivitis, other more worrying symptoms may develop. These include:

  • Loose teeth
  • Teeth shifting position (you may notice they feel different when you bite down)
  • Pus oozing from the space between teeth and gums (an indication of infection or abscess)
  • Bright red gums
  • Dozens of grey or yellow sores appearing on the gums or insides of cheeks

What to do if you have painful or bleeding gums

Don't be tempted to assume that your gums are bleeding because you brushed a little too hard. Easing off on your brushing may solve the bleeding, but it will just aggravate the underlying cause of gingivitis, if that is what you have.

It's better to be safe than sorry, so book an appointment with your dentist and mention your bleeding gums.

Your dentist will use a small measuring device to check whether your gums have started to separate from your teeth. They will also look for any other indications as to the extent of the problem. If the infection has progressed, they may take x-rays to check for bone deterioration.

If you have bleeding or painful gums, or any other symptoms of gum disease, don't hesitate to see your dentist. The earlier they remove the source of the inflammation or infection, the less chance of it causing lasting damage.

How to prevent periodontal disease

electric toothbrush for treating gingivitis
Ask your dentist which toothbrush is best

The key to preventing gum disease is simply maintaining good oral hygiene. This involves:

  • Brushing teeth twice a day for at least two minutes using a fluoride toothpaste
  • Flossing at least once a day
  • Rinsing with antibacterial fluoride mouthwash
  • Using a dental water jet to clean hard-to-reach places (especially if you are prone to gingivitis)
  • Changing your toothbrush regularly
  • Being extra careful with cleaning if you wear braces
  • Not smoking
  • Visiting your dentist and dental hygienist regularly, as advised

If you're unsure how to brush your teeth or floss properly, check out our teeth brushing guide which has detailed instructions. Also, don't be embarrassed about asking your dentist or dental hygienist to show you. Dental professionals want to help you keep your teeth in the best condition possible, so it's better to ask for help than to just assume you're doing it right.

Your dentist can also advise you on the best type of toothbrush and toothpaste to use.

How to treat gingivitis

If you are already displaying some gingivitis symptoms or are worried you may have an oral infection, speak to your dentist. Although improved dental hygiene can be enough to reverse gingivitis in its early stages, it's best to get a professional opinion.

inflamed gums
Dentists remove plaque and tartar during scaling

Your dentist may just give your teeth a good clean and send you away with some advice for better dental care. They may also provide you with special mouthwash or cleaning tools to prevent future bacterial growth.

It's more likely, however, that they will conduct a tooth scaling. This is a thorough cleaning and removal of plaque and tartar from above and below the gum line. This treatment may be repeated every three to six months if you are particularly susceptible to plaque build-up.

If you have developed periodontitis, your dentist may need to perform a procedure called root planing or refer you to a periodontist who specializes in these gum procedures. This involves smoothing out the rough spots on the tooth root so there is less of a surface for plaque to cling to in future.

In advanced cases of gum disease, flap surgery may be necessary. A specialist called a periodontist makes an incision in the gums to access the infected parts of the gum. The infected area is thoroughly cleaned, then the flaps are stitched up so the gums can heal.

The most chronic cases may require a bone graft to restore damaged bone. This is particularly important if a patient plans to have dental implants to replace lost teeth.

Don't be put off by thinking you might have to have surgery though; these procedures can be avoided by following a good oral hygiene program and seeking treatment as soon as symptoms appear.

Gingivitis treatment at home

You may be able to combat mild gum problems at home by just improving your dental health routine as discussed above. However, without visiting a dentist you can't be sure how far the infection has spread.

Tooth scaling
Tooth scaling session

If you have tartar build-up below the gum line, for example, bacteria will continue to eat away at your gum tissue and bone. No amount of careful brushing can fix this, so it's best to get a checkup with a professional if you think you may have gingivitis.

Tartar can only be removed with dental scaling. If you can see a white deposit at the base of your teeth, don't try to remove it at home. Instead, visit a dental hygienist for professional scaling.

Is treatment covered by Medicare or Medicaid?

Treatments for gingivitis and gum disease are generally not covered by Medicare. Medicaid assistance programs for low-income individuals are run by each individual state, so coverage is going to vary depending on which state you live in.

The cost of a basic consultation – including diagnosis, advice, and a scale and polish if necessary – can vary, ranging anywhere from $50 to upwards of $200. The costs of any other treatment relating to periodontitis can add hundreds of dollars.

If you have a dental insurance policy, you may be able to claim for part or all of the costs related to this treatment. Check your plan for details.

Understanding Gum Disease: Gingivitis Treatment, Symptoms and More
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Natalie Asmussen
Natalie Asmussen
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Natalie used to work as a Community Health Worker and Health Insurance Navigator. She continues to follow her passion for connecting people with the healthcare they need by writing informative content about dentistry and medicine.