While you may have seen those toothpaste commercials that promise to remove plaque and fight gum disease, you may not have realized that gum disease — gingivitis and its more serious cousin, periodontitis — can creep up on you at any stage of life.

What are the symptoms of gingivitis?

“The symptoms of gingivitis can start at any age,” says Dr. Jill Levine, a Toronto periodontist. “Some factors can exacerbate gingivitis at specific ages, including hormonal changes during pregnancy and hormonal changes during puberty.”

According to the Canadian Dental Association, symptoms of gingivitis include:

  • Red or bluish-red gum tissue
  • Swollen gums
  • Bad breath
  • Bleeding during brushing or flossing

What causes gingivitis?

Gingivitis results from a build-up of plaque (a clear, sticky, bacteria-laden coating that forms on the teeth every day) on the teeth. Certain factors accelerate plaque build-up, increasing your risk of gingivitis; they include:

  • wearing braces
  • smoking
  • malnutrition
  • low levels of vitamin C
  • medications such as cyclosporin A (an immunosuppressant), nifedipine (for high blood pressure) and Dilantin (an anti-seizure drug)

But failing to brush and floss daily can also get you into trouble.

However, if you’ve just discovered any of the symptoms of gingivitis, don’t panic. You can reverse it by ramping up your dental hygiene.

Learn more about how gum disease can effect your health.

How do you fix gingivitis?

“Most people do not know this, but gingivitis is reversible if caught at an early stage, before it progresses to periodontitis,” says Levine.

The best way to reverse it is to brush twice daily — morning and evening after meals — and to floss once daily, according to the Canadian Dental Association’s guide to fighting gingivitis.

The key is eliminating sticky plaque. “If dental plaque is not removed daily it can harden into tartar, also known as calculus,” says Tamara Wright, past president of the Canadian Academy of Periodontology, on behalf of the Canadian Dental Association. “Once tartar forms, it cannot be removed by a toothbrush or dental floss.”  She says that tartar must be removed by a dental hygienist or dentist.

What happens if gingivitis is left untreated?

If teeth aren’t cleaned properly for a long period of time and plaque builds up, the gums will become inflamed and the gum tissue around the teeth will be eroded. According to Levine, this can happen almost unnoticeably. Gradually, pockets form around the teeth that trap bacteria and tartar below the gum, where brushing and flossing can’t reach. This is called periodontal gum disease, and “also causes loss of the bone around the teeth,” says Wright. The result: tooth loss.

What’s critical, says Levine, is that periodontal disease be caught in its early stages. Your dentist can refer you to a periodontist, who will consider:

  • scraping the tartar below the gum line
  • pocket elimination surgery, which eliminates disease in gum pockets
  • tissue regeneration, which restores bones and gums
  • dental implants to replace lost teeth

“The good news is that once the inflammation that causes the loss of gum attachment and bone loss is arrested, the damage caused by periodontal disease stops,” says Wright.

It’s also a good idea to deal with periodontal disease to ensure good overall health. “There is also a link between periodontitis and systemic diseases (such as diabetes and heart disease), which is another reason to treat periodontitis early and effectively,” says Levine.

And stay optimistic. “Tooth and bone loss as a result of periodontitis are not inevitable. Periodontitis can be successfully managed through education, proper oral hygiene and treatments that rejuvenate and restore teeth and gums,” says Levine.

Three ways to prevent gingivitis from getting the better of you:

  1. Use antibacterial mouthwash – but not in place of brushing and flossing.
  2. See a periodontist before tooth loss begins.
  3. If you’re pregnant, talk to your dentist about protecting your gums and teeth.