What is Gingivitis? Gingivitis Symptoms, Causes and Treatment

What is Gingivitis?

Gingivitis is the first stage of gum disease (periodontal disease) that is characterized by inflamed or swollen gums around the teeth. Gingivitis can range from very mild to severe, so you might not even know that you have developed the condition. Maintaining good oral health through proper dental hygiene practice can help to prevent or reduce your risk of gingivitis.

Gingivitis Symptoms

A healthy gum line is firm and typically light pink. Gingivitis is often characterized by soft, puffy, dark red gums that tend to bleed easily, especially when you floss or brush. However, gingivitis is not typically painful, so it is difficult to self-diagnose the condition. Other signs and symptoms may include occasional tender gums, bad breath or receding gums.

Those who are at higher risk of developing gingivitis include those who have general illness, practice poor dental hygiene, pregnant women (due to a change in hormones that cause greater sensitivity to the gums), and diabetics who do not properly control the disease. Crowded or misaligned teeth, rough-edged tooth fillings or crowns, and unclean mouth appliances such as braces, can increase the risk of plaque build-up and gingivitis. Smoking, aging, genetic predisposition, stress, inadequate nutrition, puberty, substance abuse, HIV infection, and certain medication use can also be risk factors.

Gingivitis Causes

Gingivitis is caused by bacteria found in dental plaque that gathers on the teeth brought on by poor oral hygiene. Plaque is a sticky film that gathers quickly on the teeth. It builds up when sugars and starches from the foods that you eat interact with the bacteria that is naturally present in your mouth. Daily removal of plaque through brushing and flossing is important because plaque tends to re-form rapidly–usually in 24 hours.

Plaque that is left on the surface of the teeth for more than two or three days can harden under the gum line, at which point it becomes tartar. Tartar then makes a protective shield over the plaque, sealing in the bacteria, and making the removal process much more difficult. The longer tartar and plaque remain on the teeth, the more the gingiva, the gum area around the base of your teeth, become irritated, swollen and sensitive.

Gingivitis Complications

If gingivitis is not detected and treated in a timely manner, the condition can lead to more serious gum disease, known as periodontitis, and eventually tooth loss. Gingivitis can lead to inflammation and infections in and around the area of the tissues that support the teeth. This can include the gums, the tooth socket, and the ligaments between the gums and the tooth that stabilize each tooth.

Gingivitis Examination

At your dental check-up, your dentist will examine your mouth and teeth and check for swollen, soft or deep red gums. Plaque and tartar deposits are mostly visible to the eye and may be found at the base of the teeth. Further testing and x-rays are not typically necessary, though they may help to determine whether inflammation has spread deep into the supporting structures and tissues of the teeth.

Gingivitis Prevention

The most effective way to prevent gingivitis and other tooth and gum diseases is to practice proper dental hygiene. This commonly includes regular six-month visits to the dentist, as well as brushing twice a day and flossing daily. Use a toothbrush with soft bristles that reach the gumline when you brush. Electric spin brushes can also be effective in gently and smoothly removing plaque, and the gentle massage of the spin brush can additionally help to strengthen the gums. Antibacterial mouth rinses may also be recommended in addition to your daily brushing and flossing regimen. People who are prone to developing gingivitis may even be encouraged to brush and floss after every single meal. Other appliances, such as water irrigation devices (waterpik), special toothpicks, toothbrushes and other devices may also be recommended. While you may be vigilant about brushing and flossing, visiting your dentist can further reduce your risk of developing disease because your dentist can provide deep, thorough cleanings and fluoride treatment, which can thoroughly remove tartar build-up.

Gingivitis Treatment

Effective treatment for gingivitis requires professional care and cleaning. The goal for gingivitis treatment is to eliminate swelling and inflammation. Your dentist or dental hygienist may use a variety of tools and devices in order to remove deposits of plaque and tartar. If the gum disease has progressed to a more severe stage, laser treatment may be required to help successfully remove the tartar and bacteria that has caused gingivitis. Following your professional cleaning has taken place, your swollen gums may lessen within one or two weeks. Your gums may continue to be sensitive during this time, so warm salt water rinses may be soothing and help to build up the gums, in addition to good oral hygiene practices. You may also consider taking an over-the-counter anti-inflammatory drug to help reduce discomfort caused by rigorous cleaning.

If you have crowded or misaligned teeth, your dentist may refer you to an orthodontist to discuss treatment plans in order to align your teeth and reduce your risk of developing plaque and tartar.

Preparing for Your Appointment

There are a number of questions you may want to ask your dentist at your appointment to better understand your condition and what to do. For example:

  • Will my dental insurance cover the treatments you’re recommending?
  • What are alternative options to the approach you’re suggesting?
  • How often should I brush?
  • How often should I floss?
  • What steps can I take at home to keep my gums and teeth healthy?

Questions your dentist may ask you to help better understand your history may include:

  • How often do you brush your teeth?
  • What medications do you take?
  • When did you begin experiencing symptoms?
  • Do you use dental floss? How often?


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