Your gums are probably more important than you think.  Dentists refer to the gums as “gingiva,”  “attached tissue,”  and “soft tissue.”

Your gums serve an important purpose:  they warn us that problems are starting.

Warning signs from your gums that tell you there are problems include redness, swelling, sensitivity to touch, sensitivity to cold, and bleeding easily.

Your gums react to local irritants such as plaque, food debris (pop corn kernels are famous for causing gingival irritation), hot foods, scratchy foods, and hardened plaque called calculus or tartar.

Irritation around your gums is very similar to having a sliver in your finger.  It might not hurt until you touch it, but it will be irritated until the sliver is removed.

In the case of your gums, prolonged irritation leads to recession of the gums.  When gums recede, or shrink downward, the very sensitive root surface of the tooth is exposed.  Many people experience cold and touch sensitivity due to gingival recession.  Treatment options include application of fluoride, phosphates, calcium and other minerals and gum grafting.

Dentists who specialize in the gums are called Periodontists. Periodontists are specialists in the gums and the bone that support the teeth.  They may recommend deep cleanings to remove debris (plaque, calculus, and food debris) below the gums that you can’t reach with floss.

You may have had your gums measured at the dentist.  We do this with a periodontal probe that is marked in three millimeter increments.  The gums surround each tooth and leave a pocket around the tooth the way a turtle neck sweater fits around your neck.  In health, the pocket around a tooth is 1mm-3mm deep.  Anything deeper than 4mm cannot be cleaned with floss.  If you have measurements of 5mm or deeper, you will be referred to a periodontist for evaluation.  If plaque or other debris is not removed, the gum tissue becomes red, sore to the touch, puffy, and bleeds easily.  Over time, the gums will let go of the place where they attach to the teeth and irritants will migrate downward and eventually destroy bone.

Healthy gums do not hurt to be flossed and do not bleed.  If it is uncomfortable for you to get your teeth cleaned at the dentist, you need to floss more and deeper.  Red, bleeding gums that hurt to touch are not being cleaned well enough daily.

Gums that are not kept clean will contribute to receding gums, overall sensitivity, cavities at the gumline, and bone loss.   Such irritation is called gingivitis  (inflammation of the gingiva).  While the gums are irritated, flossing may be a little uncomfortable and may cause bleeding but with persistent daily flossing, the gums will improve.

Colored lesions on the gums can be a sign of a problem.  However, the most common abnormal colors are due to harmless causes.  Here is a list of a few conditions that dentists can see on your gums:

White spots are often a sign of trauma to oral soft tissues and are commonly caused by:

  • biting the area
  • burning the area with hot foods (hot cheese on pizza is the #1 culprit!)
  • alcohol-containing mouth washes
  • smoking
  • smokeless tobacco

White spots can also be a sign of:

  • yeast infection (candidiasis)

Redness of soft tissues can be a sign of:

  • yeast infection (candidiasis)
  • thermal burn
  • anemia
  • leukemia
  • allergic reaction
  • Brush, floss, and be healthy

-Dr. Cook

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