Smiling senior woman with new dental implants sitting in the dental office and looking at the mirror

Swelling and bleeding are early signs of bacterial infection in your gums. Left untreated, the infection can spread. In time, gum disease can destroy the structures that support your teeth to hold them securely in your jawbone. Your teeth may become so loose that your dentist must extract them.

Dental professionals refer to gum disease as periodontal disease, where “peri” means “around” and “ontal” refers to your teeth. By definition, then, periodontal diseases are infections of the structures around your teeth. Specifically, periodontal disease affects your gums, the cementum that covers tooth roots and holds your teeth in your jawbone, the alveolar bone that contains tooth sockets, and the periodontal ligament that holds the cementum to the alveolar bone.

When Bacteria Spread Beyond Your Gums

Gum disease gets progressively worse as the bacteria spread. In the earliest stages of periodontal disease, known as gingivitis, the infection affects only your gums. In more severe forms of gum disease, spreading bacteria affects the all the supporting tissues, including the cementum, alveolar bone and periodontal ligament, to compromise their ability to hold onto your teeth. Once gum disease spreads beyond your gums to the supporting structures, you are at risk for tooth loss.

Scientists have been studying gum disease and the underlying causes of periodontal disease for many years. Dental professionals now agree that bacteria play a major role in the development of dental plaque, which is a sticky, colorless mass of bacteria. Now researchers are learning more about the effects a bacterial infection in your gums can have on your overall health.

Scientific studies have found links between gum disease and other health problems. Researchers are excited about the findings of these studies because the results are giving healthcare professionals a deeper understanding of disease processes in the mouth and elsewhere in the body.

How Gum Disease Spreads

Plaque builds up on teeth above and below the gum line, causing irritated gums that swell up and draw more blood into distressed tissue. Chemicals produced by plaque eventually break down the thin barrier that forms a boundary between the gums and blood vessels. Breakdown of this barrier allows bacteria in infected gums to enter the body through the bloodstream to cause inflammation in blood vessels and elsewhere in the body.

During inflammation, the body’s immune system produces special proteins, known as cytokines, which improve communication between cells. These cytokines also travel through the body in response to the inflammation of gum disease to cause various effects throughout the body.

While research has uncovered a great deal of information about the connection between gum disease and other medical problems, more research is necessary.

The Spread of Gum Disease Can Cause Certain Medical Conditions

Research shows an association between gum disease and heart disease, according to the American Academy of Periodontology. Gum disease can cause tissue inflammation that increases the risk of clogged arteries and heart disease. Periodontal disease can also worsen existing heart disease.

Research also suggests an association between periodontal disease and stroke caused by blocked arteries. One study suggests the risk of stroke rises with the severity of gum disease. In that study of 303 patients who had a stroke within the previous week, 300 healthy people, and 168 hospital patients, researchers discovered that people with severe periodontitis were four times more likely to have a stroke than did those without periodontitis or with a mild form of gum disease.

Gum disease may lead to premature births and babies with low birth weights. Bacteria that cause gum disease can cross into the bloodstream and target an unborn baby.

Diabetes, a condition characterized by high blood sugar levels, can increase the risk of infections. To make matters worse, infections can make it difficult for people with diabetes to control their blood sugar, also known as glucose. Severe periodontal disease can even increase blood glucose levels and keep those blood sugars high for a longer period. This puts people with diabetes at risk for diabetic complications.

Bacteria associated with gum disease may cause lung infections or worsen existing lung infections. Oral bacteria may travel to the lungs to cause severe pneumonia and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). The risk is particularly worrisome for persons in nursing homes and other extended care facilities, as respiratory infections spread quickly in closed environments and older individuals have more trouble fending off such infections.

Fortunately, you can reduce your risk of illness by keeping your gums healthy. Your dentist at Vero VIP Implants and Periodontics can help you improve your oral hygiene habits and reduce your risk of gum disease.