Periodontal disease, or gum disease, can wreak havoc on your or your child's mouth. This article explores the types of and risk factors for gum disease — and how you can recognize possible trouble signs.

The American Dental Association defines gum disease as "an infection of the tissues surrounding and supporting the teeth." The infection is caused by plaque, the sticky, bacteria-laden substance constantly building up on teeth. If left untreated, gum disease can cause inflammation of the gums and even tooth loss.

Types of Gum Disease

The two major types of gum disease are gingivitis and periodontitis.

Gingivitis is the early, milder form of gum disease. It only affects the gums, which can become red, swollen and prone to bleeding. Failing to practice good oral hygiene can allow gingivitis to progress into periodontitis.

Periodontitis is the more advanced form of gum disease. It can cause gums to separate from the teeth, allowing bacteria to infect the pockets that form in between. Over time, teeth may become loose, fall out or have to be extracted — even if the teeth themselves are perfectly healthy.

Risk Factors for Gum Disease

Many factors can increase the risk of gum disease, such as:

  • Tobacco use: In addition to numerous other health problems, smoking or chewing tobacco also have been linked with gum disease.
  • Defective fillings or crooked teeth: Imperfections like these create an environment that may give rise to gum disease.
  • Diabetes: People with diabetes are more susceptible to infections that may lead to gum disease and other illnesses.
  • Medications: Oral contraceptives, steroids, certain heart and cancer therapy drugs, and other medications may contribute to the development of gum disease.
  • Teeth grinding: Stressed out? Be sure to use a mouth guard at night. Too much grinding can damage the tissues that support your teeth.
  • Pregnancy and menopause: Hormonal fluctuations in women's bodies can make gums and other tissues more vulnerable to gum disease.

Signs of Gum Disease

Tell your dentist immediately if you notice any signs of gum disease, including:

  • Red, swollen, tender or receding gums
  • Gums that bleed easily, especially during brushing or flossing
  • Gaps or pus between gums and teeth
  • Loose teeth
  • A change in how your teeth come together when you bite
  • Persistent bad breadth

Please note that some people develop gum disease without showing any symptoms. That's why you always should have regular dental checkups and practice good oral hygiene.

To learn about preventing gum disease — and how to treat gum disease should it strike — please see "Gum Disease: Prevention & Treatments." And of course, be sure to let your dentist know if you have any questions about gum disease.