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Gum disease, what causes it, how to prevent it

Healthy gums are an important aspect of oral health, but the benefits don't stop there.

February has traditionally been designated Gum Disease Awareness Month, a time to recognize the role of gum health in a person's overall health.

More than 47 percent of adults aged 30 years and older have some form of periodontal disease, according to a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report. Prevalence increases to more than 70 percent for adults aged 65 and up.

We asked Dr. Julie Lesher from Dentistry on Vine in Hudson to explain the different facets of gum disease and provide some prevention tips.

What is gum disease and what are the warning signs?

Dr. Julie LesherGum Disease is a bacterial infection that destroys the attachment fibers that support the bone and hold your teeth in your mouth. Gingivitis is infection in the gum tissues. Periodontal disease is when both the gum tissue and bone is affected. When this happens, the gum tissue will separate from the teeth and there will become areas where plaque can collect and contribute to the infection. Over time the bone that supports the teeth will progressively dissolve away. Most people will first notice bleeding with brushing and flossing. Some may not see any symptoms at all.

Is gum disease preventable?

Yes, gum disease is preventable. Prevention requires good oral health habits. In most cases this is accomplished by brushing twice a day and flossing once a day. Be sure to ask your dental hygienist or dentist if it looks like you are doing a good job of cleaning your teeth on a daily basis. If not, ask them to demonstrate while you watch in a mirror so you know where you need to improve.

Regular dental exams, professional cleanings and X-rays monitor and assist in controlling or preventing the advancement of gum diseases. Though there are some genetic factors that cannot be prevented, regular dental care will help a patient manage genetic factors.

If a patient flosses for the first time in months the day before a dental checkup, are they fooling anyone?

No! When plaque and bacteria is undisturbed between the teeth it will harden into a deposit called calculus. This causes an irritation to the gum tissues much like a foreign object under the skin would. When a patient flosses after a period of not flossing the gum tissues will bleed and be inflamed and the hard deposit of calculus will remain. All of this is seen by the dental hygienist or dentist when they evaluate the tissues.

What are the treatment options for gum disease?

Treatments range from simple polishing and flossing to remove soft plaque and stain, to a more indepth therapy where the dental hygienist uses specific tools to remove the hard deposits of calculus from the tooth surfaces. Most patients respond very to well these therapies. In some cases a patient will be referred to a periodontal specialist, if necessary, to resolve the more advanced stages of the disease. Brushing and flossing alone can not reverse gum disease.

How important is gum health to a person's overall health?

Oral health offers clues about your overall health; problems in your mouth can affect or reflect conditions in the rest of your body. Gum disease has a scientific link to heart disease, stroke, diabetes, some types of cancer and premature birth. It also is difficult for our body to heal when it is fighting a chronic infection like gum disease. Many patients are now required by their physician or surgeon to have a dental check up and cleaning prior to any surgical procedures or chemo therapies. A recent study noted that up to 75 percent of pneumonia in our elderly population is caused by aspirating, or breathing, bacteria and food debris in their mouth into the lungs.

Fear of the dentist

February also is Children’s Dental Health Month, good timing as children dig into their Valentine’s Day treats.

Dr. Angela VeireThough oral health habits are good to start young, some children may experience anxiety when it comes to getting a dental checkup. Dr. Angela Veire, a pediatric dentist at HealthPartners, offers these six tips to help make the trip to the dentist easier on children:

  • Start dental visits while they’re young. The earlier your child visits the dentist, the more comfortable they will become with dental procedures and their dentist. The American Academy of Paediatric Dentistry advises parents bring their child into the dentist as soon as the first tooth appears or by one year of age.
  • Communicate, but keep it simple. Give your child time to mentally prepare for their first visit. Don’t tell them about the appointment at the last minute. Discuss what will happen at the visit and encourage them to ask questions when they arrive. This will allow them to interact with the dentist and feel more comfortable.
  • Stick to positive words. Avoid using terms like painful or hurt about the dentist. Instead, try using words like clean, strong or healthy smile.
  • Visit a pediatric dentist. One of my favorite parts of my job is helping make my young patients comfortable. It’s even better when a child is excited to come back. Pediatric dentists have additional training treating only children.
  • Stay calm, even when they’re not. It’s common for children to be afraid of their first dental visit. Pediatric dentists are used to that — so don’t be embarrassed if they fuss. The best thing you can do as a parent is to be positive and encourage them that everything will be okay.
  • Teach them the importance of good dental hygiene. The dentist is a lot less scary for children when their teeth are clean and healthy. Teach your children good oral hygiene habits. Remind them that their dentist is there to help keep their teeth healthy.
Michael Brun

Michael Brun joined RiverTown Multimedia at the Red Wing Republican Eagle in March 2013, covering county government, health and local events.  He is a graduate of the University of Wisconsin-River Falls journalism program.

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