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Why You Should Never Ignore Your Painful, Swollen Gums

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The discussion about oral health tends to revolve around how to maintain our pearly whites well, white and free of cavities. Not much attention is given to our gums in fact the only time most of us remember they are there is when they demand our attention in the form of bleeding or swelling.

So what causes swollen gums exactly? Poor oral hygiene: “Plaque is a soft sticky substance that forms in the mouth through the day and contains millions of bacteria” said New York City-based cosmetic dentist Catrise Austin, DDS. “When plaque is not removed daily by brushing and flossing it releases toxins that infect the gums and cause swelling.”


You can start turning things around by brushing up on your teeth cleaning skills pun totally intended that involves brushing and flossing twice a day to maintain plaque from camping out below the gums.

Any plaque that is not removed between the teeth will harden becoming tartar that can’t be dealt with by a toothbrush alone said Dr. Austin. You will have to take a trip to your dentist for a professional cleaning that pros recommend you schedule every 6 months or so.

But even with all of this cleaning action your gums may swell and that could be a symptom of an underlying problem. “Swelling of the gums is never a normal thing and should be seen by a dentist or physician that can properly diagnose and help with an appropriate treatment course” said Kari L. Sakurai DDS general and cosmetic dentist at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica California.

If your pillowy gums have not gone back to normal within 2 weeks time, experts recommend checking in with your dentist for a consult. Here are ten possible reasons your gums are swollen according to experts.

1. Gingivitis could be to blame.


The most common trigger of swollen gums is gingivitis a mild form of gum disease “Over time bacteria and food particles form a film of plaque over teeth” said New York-based endodontist Adam S. Harwood, DMD. “Left untreated, the plaque becomes tartar that might be impervious to your at-home brushing efforts.”

Because it’s not painful in the beginning most people don’t realize the plaque is setting up shop till it’s too late. If left untreated gingivitis can morph into periodontitis advanced gum disease and lead to tooth loss.

“That’s why it’s essential that whenever you experience swollen or bleeding gums you have a dental professional check it out and get to the underlying cause” said Dr. Harwood. Depending on severity your dentist can show you the best way to brush and might prescribe low-dose oral antibiotics or a medicated mouthwash.

2. You’ve got something stuck in your teeth (like, really stuck).

If only one tooth or region of your mouth is swollen this might be a symptom that a food particle say a pesky popcorn kernel is trapped below the gum line. This causes the body to attempt to fight off the bacteria of the unwelcome food that makes the surrounding tissue becoming inflamed said Daniel Reich DMD, director of periodontics and clinical associate professor of dental medicine at Touro College of Dental Medicine in New York.

If the inflammation goes from being a minor discomfort to significant pain if it threatens the health of the tooth itself  check in with your dentist said Dr. Harwood that will be able to hunt down the cause and eradicate it.

3. An infection could be brewing.


One of the most common infections that can cause gums to swell especially in children but it happens to adults as well is called gingivostomatitis. “This infection might be the result of a viral or bacterial infection and is often accompanied by the appearance of oral canker sores” said Dr. Harwood.

While the body can generally fight the infection off on its own in time the discomfort might send you straight to your dentist’s chair that will sanitize the infected area and in most cases prescribe an antibiotic.

4. A new medication is causing odd side effects.


Some commonly prescribed medications can cause gum swelling as a side effect including blood pressure drugs that contain calcium channel blockers such as verapamil and diltiazem. “These and other families of medications, like phenytoin a seizure medication can result in a buildup of gum tissue resulting in a condition known as gingival overgrowth where tissue grows over the teeth” said Dr. Harwood.

If you find that your gums are giving you 'tude following the start of a new medication check out with your dentist that might know alternative treatments or modified dosages to regulate the gum’s reaction.

5. You have a vitamin deficiency.


Vitamin deficiencies are not as prevalent as they used to be but “we still see swollen gums resulting from malnutrition among older patients that might not be following a balanced diet” said Dr. Harwood.

Many vitamins play a role in good oral health but insufficient intake of vitamins B and C generally causes swollen gums with vitamin C being a key player in gum restoration. “It can protect your gums from getting infected and swollen by any plaque that’s hidden under the gum” said Dr. Austin.

determine if malnutrition is causing your gum issues. Once confirmed you can pop supplements to replenish your stores while adopting better food choices.

6. Or you’re going through hormonal changes.


“Women can experience swollen gums during unique periods in their life where there are hormonal changes such as during  menstruation, pregnancy, menopause, puberty and the use of birth control pills” said Dr. Austin.

This is because hormones affect how your gum tissues react to the toxins released from the bacterial plaque and tartar she explains. An uptick in the hormones estrogen and progesterone increases the chance of gum irritation and swelling caused by plaque.

If you have already got your brushing and flossing routine on lockdown and are on top of your teeth cleanings yet swollen gums are still giving you trouble Dr. Austin recommends consulting with your doctor. “They may recommend hormonal or vitamin therapy to help” said Dr. Austin.

7. Switching to a new toothpaste is causing irritation.


Ingredients in toothpaste and mouthwash can irritate gum tissue and result in allergic reactions especially with continued use like when you don’t know it’s your oral care products causing the reaction.

“Identifying the ingredient and removing it from your daily routine is often enough to help your gums heal up” said Los Angeles based board certified dermatologist Tsippora Shainhouse MD. Common ingredients that can cause pesky oral contact dermatitis include hydrogen peroxide teeth-whitening alcohol mouthwashes baking soda toothpaste and cinnamates chewing gum.

8. You’re experiencing dental device drama.


“Poorly fitting dentures or even Invisalign type teeth straighteners can irritate the gums leading to inflammation and secondary swelling” said Dr. Shainhouse removal of the device or having them properly fitted so they fit snugly dentures or don’t touch the gums straighteners can undo the damage and swelling.

9. A crooked tooth or two is causing trouble.


Misalignment of teeth can actually affect how well you can access them and brush and floss to  properly remove bacterial plaque. “By realigning and straightening your teeth with either traditional braces, clear aligners or porcelain veneers you can gain better access to clean below the gums where plaque buildup is causing gum infections and swelling” said Dr. Austin.

10. You have an underlying health condition.


Swollen gums may be a symptom of an underlying health condition like diabetes. Glucose is present in saliva so when your blood sugar’s out of whack the higher glucose level in your spit helps bacteria to grow that can lead to gum disease according to the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases.

Another less common but serious, cause of gum swelling and bleeding is leukemia sometimes in the form of a single swollen lump or completely swollen gums. “The leukemia cells concentrate in the gums, making them puffy,” said Dr. Sakurai.

If the swelling persists if it’s associated with other systemic signs like fevers, night sweats, fatigue and unexplained weight loss says Dr. Shainhouse see your doctor right away for a blood test.

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