Gingivitis is a disorder involving inflammation of the gums (gingiva).
Gingivitis is a form of periodontal disease. Periodontal disease is when inflammation and infection destroy the tissues that support the teeth, including the gingiva (gums), the periodontal ligaments, and the tooth sockets (alveolar bone).
Gingivitis is caused by the long-term effects of plaque deposits. Plaque is a sticky material that develops on the exposed portions of the teeth, consisting of bacteria, mucus, and food debris. It is a major cause of tooth decay. Unremoved plaque mineralizes into a hard deposit called tartar that becomes trapped at the base of the tooth. Plaque and tartar irritate and inflame the gingiva. Bacteria, and the toxins bacteria produce, cause the gums to become infected, swollen, and tender.
Injury or trauma to the gums from any cause, including overly vigorous brushing or flossing of the teeth, can also cause gingivitis. The risks for developing gingivitis include uncontrolled diabetes, pregnancy (because of hormonal changes that increase the sensitivity of the gingiva), general illness, and poor dental hygiene.
Malocclusion of teeth (misaligned teeth), rough edges of fillings, and ill fitting or unclean mouth appliances (such as orthodontic appliances, dentures, bridges, and crowns) can irritate the gums and increase the risk of gingivitis. Medications such as phenytoin and birth control pills, and ingestion of heavy metals such as lead and bismuth are also associated with gingivitis.
Many people experience gingivitis to a varying degree. It usually develops during puberty or early adulthood due to hormonal changes and may persist or recur frequently, depending on how healthy your teeth and gums are.
- Mouth sores
- Swollen gums
- Bright red or red-purple appearance to gums
- Shiny appearance to gums
- Bleeding gums (blood on toothbrush even with gentle brushing of the teeth)
- Gums that are tender when touched, but otherwise painless
Exams and Tests
Consult the dentist if signs of gingivitis are present. The dentists will examine your mouth and teeth and look for soft, swollen, red-purple gingiva. Deposits of plaque and tartar may be visible at the base of the teeth. The gums are usually painless or mildly tender.
No further testing is usually necessary, although dental x-rays and dental gingival probing (measuring the amount of bone) may be performed to determine whether periodontitis (spread of inflammation to the supporting structures of the teeth) has developed.
The goal is to reduce the gingival inflammation. The teeth are cleaned thoroughly by the dentist or dental hygienist. This may involve various instruments or devices to loosen and remove deposits from the teeth (scaling).
Meticulous oral hygiene is necessary after professional tooth cleaning. The dentist or hygienist will demonstrate brushing and flossing techniques. Professional tooth cleaning in addition to brushing and flossing may be recommended twice per year or more frequently for severe cases. Antibacterial mouth rinses or other aids may be recommended in addition to frequent, careful, tooth brushing and flossing.
Repair of misaligned teeth or replacement of dental and orthodontic appliances may be recommended. Any other related illnesses or conditions should be treated.
The removal of plaque from inflamed gums may be uncomfortable. Bleeding and tenderness of the gums should lessen within 1 or 2 weeks after professional cleaning and careful oral hygiene. Warm salt water or antibacterial rinses can reduce the puffiness. Over-the-counter anti-inflammatory medications will ease any discomfort from a rigorous cleaning.
Healthy gums are pink and firm in appearance. Strict oral hygiene must be maintained for your whole life or gingivitis will recur.
- Recurrence of gingivitis
- Infection or abscess of the gingiva or the jaw bones
When to Contact a Medical Professional
Call your dentist if symptoms of gingivitis are present, especially if you have not had a routine cleaning and examination in the last 6 months.
Call your health care provider if the dentist recommends medical treatment of underlying conditions that contribute to the development of gingivitis.
Good oral hygiene is the best prevention against gingivitis because it removes the plaque that causes the disorder. The teeth should be brushed at least twice daily and flossed gently at least once per day. For people who are prone to gingivitis, brushing and flossing may be recommended after every meal and at bedtime. Consult the dentist or dental hygienist for instructions on proper brushing and flossing techniques.
Special appliances or tools may be recommended by the dentist for use by people who are particularly prone to plaque deposits. Their use supplements, but does not replace, thorough brushing and flossing. Appliances and tools may include special toothpicks, toothbrushes, water irrigation, or other devices. Electric toothbrushes were initially recommended for persons who have problems with strength or dexterity of their hands, but are now recommended to many patients to improve their oral hygiene.
Antiplaque or antitartar toothpastes or mouth rinses may be recommended by the dentist or dental hygienist.
Regular professional tooth cleaning is important to remove plaque that may develop even with careful brushing and flossing. Many dentists recommend having the teeth professionally cleaned at least every 6 months.
Ferri FF. Ferri's Clinical Advisor: Instant Diagnosis and Treatment. 2005 ed. St. Louis, Mo: Mosby; 2005:447-448:333.
Marx J. Rosen's Emergency Medicine: Concepts and Clinical Practice. 5th ed. St. Louis, Mo: Mosby; 2002:898.
American Academy of Periodontology. Parameter on plaque-induced gingivitis. J Periodontol. 2000; 71(5 Suppl): 851-2.