Gum Disease: Do You Know the Early Warning Signs?

When you’re a 5-year-old, it can be exciting to lose a tooth. Cue the tooth fairy. When you’re a grown-up, the magic is gone.

Among adults, gum disease is the leading cause of tooth loss, according to the National Institutes of Health. Here are more facts about this common, sometimes painful, problem — including the warning signs and tips to help you safeguard your smile.

Q. What is it?

A. Gum disease — also called periodontal diseaseinvolves swelling of the tissue around teeth. In many cases, it starts off as a mild problem. But it can be severe enough to damage the tissue and bone that hold the teeth in place.

The good news is it’s preventable. And when caught early, gum disease may be slowed or even stopped.

Q. What causes it?

A. It starts when bacteria from foods form plaque on the teeth. Over time, those germs can irritate the gums. Without treatment, infected pockets may form around the teeth — and harm the bones, gums and tissue that support them.

Q. What are the warning signs?

A. Gum disease often starts slowly. At first, your gums may be:

  • Red, swollen and tender
  • Prone to bleeding when you brush them

If gum disease gets worse, you may notice:

  • Persistent bad breath
  • Gums that pull away from your teeth
  • Loose, sensitive teeth or teeth that separate from each other
  • Pain while chewing

See your dentist if you have any of these signs.

Q. Who’s at risk?

A. Anyone can develop gum disease, especially if plaque is allowed to build up along the gum line. Men are more likely to have it than women. And your risk may be higher if you:

  • Smoke
  • Are 30 or older
  • Have diabetes
  • Are being treated for AIDS or cancer
  • Have a family history of tooth and gum problems

Q. How can I avoid gum disease?

A. Your daily dental habits make a difference. Remember to:

  • Brush your teeth at least twice a day — and, ideally, after meals — with a fluoride toothpaste
  • Floss daily between your teeth to remove plaque
  • Not use tobacco
  • See a dentist for regular checkups and cleanings*

If you already have gum disease, these same healthy habits may help keep it from getting worse. Your dentist may suggest other treatments as well.*

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What to do next

Discover more tips to help you have a healthy smile for life at

*Check your benefit plan to see what services may be covered.

The information provided here is for general informational purposes only and is not intended to be nor should be construed as medical or other advice. Talk to an appropriate health care professional to determine what may be right for you.

Last reviewed September 2016

© 2017 United HealthCare Services, Inc.