Medically Reviewed By William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS

What is gingivitis?

Gingivitis is the name of a mild form of periodontal (gum) disease. The disease causes irritation, redness, and swelling (inflammation) of the gums due to plaque buildup along and under the gum line. Bacteria live and flourish in plaque, which sticks to the teeth and attracts more bacterial growth. Gingivitis is a very common gum disease in the United States. It occurs more often in men than women.

Gingivitis develops due to several factors. Most commonly, people acquire gingivitis from poor oral hygiene resulting in a buildup of plaque along and under the gum line. Once the teeth become covered in plaque, inflammation of the gum and the possibility of infection result. This may lead to a more severe form of gum disease known as periodontitis, which, left untreated, may destroy the tissues that support the teeth, including the gums, the periodontal ligaments, and the tooth sockets (alveolar bone).

The signs and symptoms of gingivitis can be very mild. The disease course varies among individuals. Some people may not be aware they have the condition, while others may have bleeding, swelling, tenderness, and mouth sores.

Seek immediate medical care (call 911) for serious symptoms, such as high fever (higher than 101 degrees Fahrenheit), severe pain, and difficulty swallowing or breathing. Seek prompt medical care if you are being treated for gingivitis but mild symptoms recur or are persistent.

What are the symptoms of gingivitis?

Gingivitis causes inflammation of the gums that may result in a number of symptoms. The symptoms can vary in intensity among individuals.

Common symptoms of gingivitis

The most common symptoms of gingivitis are related to disturbances in the mouth and include:

Symptoms that might indicate a serious condition

In some cases, gingivitis can be a serious condition that should be evaluated immediately in an emergency setting. Seek immediate medical care if you, or someone you are with, have any of these serious symptoms including:

What causes gingivitis?

Gingivitis is caused by multiple factors that result in inflammation of the gums. Inflammation due to plaque accumulation on the teeth is responsible for many cases of gingivitis. Plaque is a biofilm made up of bacteria and is very sticky, allowing it to adhere to the teeth. The accumulation of plaque results in inflammation of the gum line, swelling, and bleeding. For this reason, gingivitis occurs most frequently in people who do not practice good oral hygiene, such daily tooth brushing and flossing.

Less common causes of gingivitis may be the result of a variety of conditions that irritate the gums, such as misaligned teeth, rough edges of fillings, and ill-fitting or unclean mouth appliances. Birth control medication and heavy metals, such as bismuth and lead, are also associated with gingivitis. It may also develop during puberty or early adulthood due to hormonal changes. Many people have gingivitis to a varying degree sometime in their lives.

What are the risk factors for gingivitis?

A number of factors increase the risk of developing gingivitis. Not all people with risk factors will get gingivitis. Risk factors for gingivitis include:

  • Aging
  • Diabetes
  • Dry mouth
  • Hormonal changes during puberty or pregnancy
  • Ill-fitting dental restorations and appliances
  • Medications that reduce saliva in the mouth

Poor dental hygiene or nutrition

  • Substance abuse, especially methamphetamine use
  • Tobacco use
  • Viral and fungal infections

Reducing your risk of gingivitis

You can lower your risk of gingivitis by:

  • Brushing teeth twice a day, or after every meal or snack
  • Cleaning between teeth with dental pick or stick
  • Flossing daily
  • Getting regular dental cleanings
  • Treating a dry mouth condition
  • Using a soft toothbrush
  • Using an electric toothbrush

How is gingivitis treated?

Treatment for gingivitis begins with seeking professional dental care from your dentist. To determine whether you have gingivitis, your dentist will examine your mouth and teeth. X-rays may also be performed to determine whether the inflammation has spread to the bones, ligaments, and other supporting structures of your teeth.

Good oral hygiene is the mainstay of treatment for gingivitis and is highly effective. It is important to follow your treatment plan for gingivitis precisely.

Treatments for gingivitis

Oral hygiene practices that are effective in the treatment of gingivitis include:

  • Antibacterial mouth rinses
  • Professional tooth cleaning with brushing and flossing
  • Repair of misaligned teeth
  • Replacement of poorly fitting dental and orthodontic appliances

What you can do to improve your gingivitis

In addition to reducing the risk for gingivitis you can also prevent or limit asthma gingivitis by:

  • Brushing teeth twice a day, or after every meal or snack
  • Cleaning between teeth with dental pick or stick
  • Eating a balanced, nutritious diet
  • Flossing daily
  • Getting regular dental cleanings
  • Using a soft toothbrush
  • Using an electric toothbrush

What are the potential complications of gingivitis?

You can help minimize your risk of serious complications by following the treatment plan you and your health care professional design specifically for you. Complications of gingivitis include:

  • Infection or abscess of the gingiva (your gum) or your jaw bones
  • Periodontitis (infection of the gum line involving the teeth and bones)
  • Recurrence of gingivitis
  • Trench mouth (a bacterial infection of the mouth)
Was this helpful?
  1. Gingivitis. PubMed Health.
  2. Periodontal (gum) disease: causes, symptoms, and treatments. National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research.
  3. Sambunjak D, Nickerson JW, Poklepovic T, et al. Flossing for the management of periodontal diseases and dental caries in adults. Cochrane Database Syst Rev 2011; :CD008829.
Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2021 Jan 19
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