Periodontal disease or periodontitis is an infection of any of the structures around the teeth like the gums, the periodontal ligament, the alveolar bone, and the cementum that covers a tooth’s roots. It is often caused by poor dental hygiene that allows plaque to accumulate on the teeth. Bacteria in the plaque eventually work their way under the gumline and cause inflammation.
Stages of Periodontal Disease
Periodontal disease has three main stages. Gingivitis is the earliest stage that affects only the gums. The gums become inflamed and appear red and swollen. They are also tender and bleed when the patient brushes or flosses the teeth.
If gingivitis isn’t treated, the patient develops full-blown periodontitis as the bacteria start attacking the bone and fibers that hold the teeth in place. Pockets form under the gumline that trap food and other debris. As the gums recede, the patient’s teeth look longer.
The last stage is advanced periodontitis. By now, the bone and fibers supporting the teeth are severely damaged, and the teeth start to loosen and shift. The patient’s bite changes as their teeth no longer fit together normally.
Periodontal disease is insidious, for it often does not cause pain until the later stages. In 1999, scientists at the United States National Institutes of Health (NIH) found that 50 percent of Americans over 30 had gums that bled when they brushed or flossed their teeth – and that many of them assumed such bleeding was normal.
Other symptoms can include bad breath, a foul taste in the mouth, or pus around the gums and teeth.
How Does Periodontal Disease Affect Health?
Over the past few years, scientists have found links between this disease and other diseases, including dementia, rheumatoid arthritis, and diabetes. Researchers are not yet sure of the exact mechanisms, but they hypothesize that the bacteria that cause periodontal disease can travel to other organs and damage them. Similarly, the disease causes inflammation, and inflammation is a known cause of conditions like heart disease and rheumatoid arthritis.