Introduction 

Gum disease is a very common condition where the gums become swollen, sore or infected.

It's estimated to affect more than half of all adults in the UK to some degree and most people experience it at least once. It is much less common in children.

If you have gum disease, your gums may bleed when you brush your teeth and you may have bad breath. This stage of gum disease is known as gingivitis.

If gingivitis is not treated, a condition called periodontitis can develop. This affects the tissues that support teeth and hold them in place. In the UK, up to 15% of adults are estimated to have severe periodontitis, with many more affected less severely.

If periodontitis is not treated, the bone in your jaw can decay and small spaces can open up between the gum and teeth. Your teeth can become loose and may eventually fall out.

Read more about the symptoms of gum disease.

What causes gum disease?

Gum disease is caused by a build-up of plaque on the teeth. Plaque is a sticky substance that contains bacteria, which forms when you eat and drink.

Some bacteria in plaque are harmless, but some are very harmful for the health of your gums. If you do not remove plaque from your teeth by brushing them, it will build up and irritate your gums, leading to redness, swelling and soreness.

Read more about the causes of gum disease.

Seeing your dentist

You should make an appointment to see your dentist if your gums are painful, swollen or if they bleed when you brush your teeth. Find a dentist near you.

Your dentist can carry out a thorough dental examination to check the health of your gums, which may involve inserting a thin metal stick with a bend in one end (periodontal probe) beside your teeth.

In some cases, a number of X-rays may be needed to check the condition of your teeth and jaw bone.

Preventing and treating gum disease

Mild cases of gum disease can usually be treated by maintaining a good level of oral hygiene. This includes brushing your teeth at least twice a day and flossing regularly. You should also make sure you attend regular dental check-ups.

In most cases, your dentist or dental hygienist will be able to give your teeth a thorough clean and remove any hardened plaque (tartar). They will also be able to show you how to clean your teeth effectively to help prevent plaque building up in the future.

If you have severe gum disease, you will usually need to have further medical and dental treatment and, in some cases, surgery may need to be carried out. This will usually be performed by a specialist in gum problems (periodontics).

Read more about treating gum disease and keeping your teeth clean.

Dental check-ups

It is important to have regular dental check-ups so that any problems with your teeth and gums can be detected and treated early.

If you have never had gum disease and have good oral health, you may only need to visit your dentist every one to two years for a check-up.

You may need to visit your dentist more frequently if you have had problems with gum disease in the past. At each appointment your dentist will advise when you need your next appointment.

If you have an increased risk of developing gum problems – for example, if you smoke or have diabetes – you may be advised to visit your dentist more often so your teeth and gums can be closely monitored.

Complications of gum disease

If you have untreated gum disease that develops into periodontitis, it can lead to further complications, such as:

  • gum abscesses (painful collections of pus)
  • receding gums
  • loose teeth
  • loss of teeth

Read more about the complications of gum disease.

NHS dentists

Everyone should be able to access good quality NHS dental services. There is no need to register with a dentist.

Simply find a practice that's convenient for you, whether it's near home or work, and phone to see if any appointments are available.

Read more about how to find an NHS dentist.

Page last reviewed: 15/01/2014

Next review due: 15/01/2016