You may be among the nearly fifty percent of adults in The United States that suffer from some form of periodontal disease. The disease ranges from mild inflammation to serious tissue and bone involvement. In the worst cases, teeth are lost. Whether your disease is cured or not depends almost entirely on how you take care of your teeth from the time you discover the problem forward.

Bacteria live in your mouth, and along with mucous and other particles, constantly cause a clear, sticky substance called plaque to form on your teeth. Regular brushing and flossing helps prevent the plaque from hardening into tartar, which cannot be removed by brushing, but only by professional cleaning from your dentist.

The earliest stage of periodontal disease is called gingivitis, and is mainly an inflammation of the gums. Gingivitis causes swelling, redness, and bleeding of the gums, but does not cause tooth loss. Regular brushing and flossing along with routine cleanings from your dentist can keep this early periodontal problem under control.

When gingivitis is ignored, it can progress to periodontitis, which affects not just the gums but the teeth as well. Periodontitis means “inflammation around the tooth.” In this stage of the disease, the gums pull away from the teeth, forming “pockets” which become infected. With the plaque spreading and growing beneath the surface of the gum, the body’s immune system kicks in, in an attempt to stop the growth of the disease. Although this sounds positive, the bacterial growth and the body’s natural response work together to break down the bone and connective tissue around the teeth. Untreated, the disease can cause untold damage to the teeth, gums and bones that hold the teeth in place. Tooth loss follows.

Normally, people begin to see gingivitis in their 30s and 40s. It is rare for teenagers to develop periodontal disease, but the milder form of the disease can show up whenever plaque is allowed to develop around and under the gum line.

You may be in that portion of the population that have risk factors for gum disease. Among those factors are smoking, diabetes, cancer (and its treatments), AIDS (and its treatment), medications, hormonal changes in girls and women, and genetic predisposition. (If you’ve ever wanted a reason to quit smoking, here’s a good one!)

How do you know if you have periodontal disease? Some of the common symptoms are: red, swollen, tender, or bleeding gums; chronic bad breath (halitosis); painful chewing; loose or sensitive teeth; teeth that look long or receding gums. Any of these symptoms should prompt a visit to your dentist.

Treatment for periodontal disease depends on the severity of the problem. The first goal is to eliminate infection. What type of treatment is used will vary, depending on the extent of the disease, but all treatments include keeping up good dental hygiene at home. The dentist may also suggest changing some behaviors, such a quitting smoking, to improve the outcome.

Treatment most commonly consists of scaling and root planing, which means scraping the tartar off of the teeth and planing the root to remove rough spots. In more advanced cases, the dentist might need to do flap surgery, in which the gums are lifted up and the teeth deep cleaned. Then the gums are stitched back around the teeth. Sometimes bone grafts or soft tissue grafts are needed in severe enough cases. These are things only your dentist can tell you.

Periodontal disease is both preventable and treatable. Proper nutrition and regular hygiene are necessary, and they may prevent you from becoming a statistic in the war on gum disease.