A staggering 7 out of 10 Canadians will develop gum disease at some point in their lives, according to the Canadian Dental Association.

What is gum disease?

“Periodontal disease” — the official name for gum disease — is the single-most-common dental issue in Canada. And unfortunately, it doesn’t just affect your gums.

“The symptoms of periodontal disease don’t disturb you on a day-to-day basis, so you might live with the chronic infection for years,” says Dr. Liran Levin, professor and head of the Division of Periodontology at the University of Alberta. “That infection has a continuous effect on your blood bacteria levels and systemic inflammation.” Over time, the inflammation and bacteria can contribute to chronic health problems, including life-threatening ones such as heart disease.

What causes gum disease?

At its core, gum disease is a result of bacteria and inflammation. The same harmful bacteria that cause cavities can also irritate your gum tissue, triggering chronic inflammation. Over time, your gum tissue recedes to try to escape the source of the irritation, leading to gum pockets, bone loss, loose teeth and, ultimately, tooth loss.

The good news is that with proper awareness and care, you can often lessen and sometimes even eliminate the symptoms and negative effects of gum disease.

How can gum disease affect your health?

Here are 4 dangers of this widespread affliction, and how you can protect yourself and your family.

1. Difficulty regulating diabetes

If you live with diabetes and struggle to control your blood sugar, your gum health may be partly to blame. Diabetes can affect the blood vessels in your mouth, disrupting blood flow and leaving your gums more vulnerable to infection, and gum disease is linked to poorer blood sugar control. But treating gum disease tends to help with diabetes control, and vice versa, says Levin. Include both your doctor and dentist or periodontist in your overall treatment plans to address both issues at the same time. Remember: A sugary diet both feeds harmful bacteria in your mouth and affects your blood sugar.

2. A higher risk of heart disease

You may stay active and eat wisely, but gum disease could still put your cardiovascular health at risk. Long-term inflammation contributes to the accumulation of plaque within your blood vessels — bacteria can travel from your gums through your bloodstream and make up part of the plaque, explains Levin. While clearing the infection won’t remove plaque that’s already accumulated in your arteries, it may slow the rate at which it does so in future.

3. Complications during pregnancy

If you are pregnant or actively trying to conceive, it’s essential to keep your gums healthy. Bacteria from infected gums can travel through the bloodstream into the shared blood supply between the mother and embryo and colonize the placenta, warns Levin. Additionally, inflammatory compounds (called cytokines) from the chronic gum inflammation may cause early labour and premature or low-birth-weight babies. Pregnant women with gum disease face a higher risk of early labour, so treating gum disease before pregnancy is important for reducing the risk of these complications.

4. A higher risk of respiratory problems

Though its role in other conditions is not as well established, scientists believe gum disease affects several other areas of your health, too, including worsening respiratory issues, says Levin. The chronic inflammation linked to gum disease may make your airways more sensitive, triggering asthma or allergies, and older adults may even aspirate the bacteria that cause gum disease, carrying infection from the mouth to the airways and lungs.

What you can do to prevent gum disease

You’ve already heard brushing and flossing is key. That isn’t the whole story, however. “You need to know how to remove bacteria from around your gums and teeth to prevent periodontal disease,” says Levin. “But most people who floss are doing it incorrectly.” If you’re not effectively removing the bacteria when you floss and brush, you aren’t necessarily reducing your gum disease risk.

The solution? Chat with your dentist or dental hygienist about effective inter-dental technique. Discuss your own routine in detail so your dentist can offer personalized tips for improvement. Perhaps even request a real-time demonstration so you know what a proper cleaning feels like. If you have trouble using traditional floss, other tools such as specialized toothpicks or interdental brushes might help you clear plaque more effectively.

If you’re struggling with ongoing gum disease, the best advice is to see a specialist. With specialized training, an experienced periodontist can help you get a gum infection under control and benefit your overall health.

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