Health A to Z
Gum disease is a very common condition where the gums become swollen, sore or infected.
Most adults in the UK have gum disease to some degree and most people experience it at least once. It's much less common in children.
If you have gum disease, your gums may bleed when you brush your teeth and you may have bad breath. This early stage of gum disease is known as gingivitis.
If gingivitis isn't treated, a condition called periodontitis can develop. This affects more tissues that support teeth and hold them in place.
If periodontitis isn't treated, the bone in your jaw may be damaged and small spaces can open up between the gum and teeth. Your teeth can become loose and may eventually fall out.
Read more about the symptoms of gum disease.
Gum disease is caused by a build-up of plaque on the teeth. Plaque is a sticky substance that contains bacteria.
Some bacteria in plaque are harmless, but some are harmful for the health of your gums. If you don't remove plaque from your teeth by brushing them, it builds up and irritates your gums. This can lead to redness with bleeding, swelling and soreness.
Read more about the causes of gum disease.
You should make an appointment to see your dentist if your gums are painful, swollen or if they bleed when you brush your teeth. Find a dentist near you.
Your dentist can carry out a thorough dental examination to check the health of your gums, which may involve inserting a thin metal stick with a bend in one end (periodontal probe) beside your teeth.
In some cases, a number of X-rays may be needed to check the condition of your teeth and jaw bone.
Mild cases of gum disease can usually be treated by maintaining a good level of oral hygiene. This includes brushing your teeth at least twice a day and flossing regularly. You should also make sure you attend regular dental check-ups.
In most cases, your dentist or dental hygienist will be able to give your teeth a thorough clean and remove any hardened plaque (tartar). They'll also be able to show you how to clean your teeth effectively to help prevent plaque building up in the future.
If you have severe gum disease, you'll usually need to have further medical and dental treatment and, in some cases, surgery may need to be carried out. This will usually be performed by a specialist in gum problems (periodontics).
Read more about treating gum disease and keeping your teeth clean.
It's important to have regular dental check-ups so any problems with your teeth and gums can be detected and treated early.
If you've never had gum disease and have good oral health, you may only need to visit your dentist every one to two years for a check-up.
You may need to visit your dentist more frequently if you've had problems with gum disease in the past. At each appointment your dentist will advise when you need your next appointment.
If you have an increased risk of developing gum problems – for example, if you smoke or have diabetes – you may be advised to visit your dentist more often so your teeth and gums can be closely monitored.
If you have untreated gum disease that develops into periodontitis, it can lead to further complications, such as:
Read more about the complications of gum disease.
Healthy gums should be pink, firm and keep your teeth securely in place. Your gums shouldn't bleed when you touch or brush them.
Gum disease isn't always painful and you may be unaware you have it. It's important to have regular dental check-ups.
The initial symptoms of gum disease can include:
This stage of gum disease is called gingivitis.
If gingivitis is untreated, the tissues and bone that support the teeth can also become affected. This is known as periodontitis, or periodontal disease.
Symptoms of periodontitis can include:
In rare cases, a condition called acute necrotising ulcerative gingivitis (ANUG) can develop suddenly. The symptoms of ANUG are usually more severe than those of gum disease and can include:
You should make an appointment to see your dentist if you think you may have gum disease or ANUG.
If you don't currently have a dentist, search for a dentist near you.
Read more about treating gum disease.
Gum disease can be caused by a number of factors, but poor oral hygiene is the most common cause.
Poor oral hygiene, such as not brushing your teeth properly or regularly, can cause plaque to build up on your teeth.
Your mouth is full of bacteria that combine with saliva to form a sticky film known as plaque, which builds up on your teeth.
When you consume food and drink high in carbohydrates (sugary or starchy foods), bacteria in plaque turn carbohydrates into the energy they need, producing acid at the same time.
Over time, acid in plaque begins to break down your tooth's surface and causes tooth decay.
Other bacteria in plaque can also irritate your gums, making them inflamed and sore.
Plaque is usually easy to remove by brushing and flossing your teeth, but it can harden and form a substance called tartar if it's not removed. Tartar sticks much more firmly to teeth than plaque and can usually only be removed by a dentist or dental hygienist.
As well as poor oral hygiene, a number of things can increase your risk of developing problems with your gums. These include:
The best way to treat gum disease is to practise good oral hygiene, although additional dental and medical treatments are sometimes necessary.
Good oral hygiene involves:
See the teeth cleaning guide for more information and advice about how to keep your teeth clean.
Antiseptic mouthwashes containing chlorhexidine or hexetidine are available over the counter from pharmacies. However, there's some debate about whether using mouthwash is necessary for people with healthy gums.
Your dentist may recommend using mouthwash if it helps control the build-up of plaque (the sticky substance that forms when bacteria collects on the surface of your teeth). Your dentist will be able to advise you about which type of mouthwash is most suitable and how to use it.
Chlorhexidine mouthwash can stain your teeth brown if you use it regularly. Rinse your mouth thoroughly between brushing your teeth and using a chlorhexidine mouthwash because some ingredients in toothpaste can prevent the mouthwash working.
Some of the dental treatments described below may also be recommended if you have gum disease.
To remove plaque and tartar (hardened plaque) that can build up on your teeth, your dentist may suggest that you have your teeth scaled and polished. This is a "professional clean" usually carried out at your dental surgery by a dental hygienist.
The dental hygienist will scrape away plaque and tartar from your teeth using special instruments, then polish your teeth to remove marks or stains. If a lot of plaque or tartar has built up, you may need to have more than one scale and polish.
The price of a scale and polish can vary depending on what needs to be carried out, so ask your dental hygienist how much it will cost beforehand.
Read more about NHS dental charges.
In some cases of gum disease, root planing (debridement) may be required. This is a deep clean under the gums that gets rid of bacteria from the roots of your teeth.
Before having the treatment, you may need to have a local anaesthetic (painkilling medication) to numb the area. You may experience some pain and discomfort for up to 48 hours after having root planing.
If you have severe gum disease, you may need further treatment, such as periodontal surgery. In some cases, it's necessary to remove the affected tooth. Your dentist will be able to tell you about the procedure needed and how it's carried out. If necessary, they can refer you to a specialist.
If you're having surgery or root planing, you may be given antibiotics (medication to treat infections). Your dentist will tell you whether this is necessary.
Acute necrotising ulcerative gingivitis (ANUG) should always be treated by a dentist. However, if you see your GP before visiting a dentist, they may provide you with some treatment while you wait to see your dentist.
As well as the oral hygiene advice and dental treatments mentioned above, treatments for ANUG may also include antibiotics, painkillers and different types of mouthwash. These are described below.
Treatment with antibiotics, such as metronidazole or amoxicillin, may be recommended if you have ANUG. You'll usually have to take these for three days.
Amoxicillin isn't suitable for people allergic to penicillin. Metronidazole can react with alcohol, causing you to feel very unwell. You shouldn't drink alcohol while you're taking metronidazole and for 48 hours after you finish the course of treatment.
Other side effects of metronidazole and amoxicillin can include nausea (feeling sick), vomiting and diarrhoea.
However, paracetamol and ibuprofen aren't suitable for everyone, so read the manufacturer's instructions before taking them.
Mouthwash containing chlorhexidine or hydrogen peroxide may be prescribed to treat ANUG. Some chlorhexidine mouthwashes are also available over the counter, though they may not be as effective as a hydrogen peroxide mouthwash.
You should always read the instructions before using mouthwash. Some types may need to be diluted in water before they're taken.
If you develop gingivitis and don't have the plaque or tartar (hardened plaque) removed from your teeth, the condition may get worse and lead to periodontitis.
You may develop further complications if you don't treat periodontitis (where the tissue that supports teeth is affected), including:
If you have acute necrotising ulcerative gingivitis (ANUG) and it's not treated, it can cause more severe complications.
The infection can spread to all areas of your gums and the alveolar bone surrounding your teeth. This can lead to:
If ANUG isn't properly treated the first time you have it, you're more likely to have recurring cases in the future. This can cause persistent bad breath (halitosis) and bleeding gums, as well as gradually receding gums.
In rare cases, ANUG can lead to gangrene affecting the lips and cheeks. This occurs when tissue starts to die and waste away. If you develop gangrene, you may need to have the dead tissue removed.
Gum disease has also been associated with an increased risk for a number of other health conditions, including:
However, while people with gum disease may have an increased risk of these problems, there isn't currently any clear evidence that gum disease directly causes them.