Sore Gums

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Introduction

What are sore gums?

Gum soreness is the result of redness, swelling, pain, sores, ulcers or bleeding. Sore gums are most commonly caused by inflammation or infection of the gums as a result of poor oral hygiene. The symptoms may be constant or variable and may worsen when eating or drinking. If gum pain is present, it may be described as sharp, dull, stabbing, burning or throbbing, ranging in intensity from mild to severe.

Depending on the cause, sore gums may be felt in only a small part of a gum (sore or ulcer), or at the gum line (periodontitis). Other conditions may affect all of the gums (bleeding or swelling). Gingivitis and other types of inflammatory conditions are among the most common causes of sore gums.

Vitamin deficiencies, such as scurvy and iron deficiency anemia, can be associated with symptoms that involve both the mouth and the gums. Disorders of the immune system, such as human immunodeficiency virus/acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (HIV/AIDS) and Behcet’s syndrome (condition that causes widespread inflammation of blood vessels), often produce symptoms in the mouth and gums. Infections of the gums (gingivitis), skin and soft tissue (cellulitis), or bone (osteomyelitis) are further causes of sore gums.

The duration and course of sore gums vary widely, depending on the cause. Symptoms caused by inflammation often have a sudden onset. In other cases, sore gums resulting from underlying vitamin deficiencies develop slowly and persist or worsen over time.

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

Symptoms

What other symptoms might occur with sore gums?

Sore gums may accompany other symptoms, which vary depending on the underlying disease, disorder or condition. Symptoms that frequently affect the gums may also involve other body systems.

Common symptoms that may occur along with sore gums

Sore gums may accompany other symptoms affecting the gums including:

  • Bleeding gums
     
  • Bright red or red-purple appearance to gums
     
  • Gums that are shiny
     
  • Gums that are tender when touched but are painless otherwise
     
  • Painful mouth sores that quickly turn to ulcers lasting 21 days or more
     
  • Receding gums
     
  • Sore smaller than about half an inch, or 12 millimeters, in diameter
     
  • Swollen gums
     
  • Ulcers with white or yellow center

Other symptoms that may occur along with sore gums

Sore gums may accompany other symptoms including:

Symptoms that might indicate a serious condition

In some cases, sore gums may occur with other symptoms that might indicate a serious condition that should be evaluated immediately in an emergency setting. Seek immediate medical care if you, or someone you are with, have sore gums along with other serious symptoms including:

Causes

What causes sore gums?

Sore gums are caused by multiple factors that result in inflammation of the gums. Inflammation due to plaque on the teeth is responsible for many cases of sore gums. Plaque is an invisible, sticky film composed mainly of bacteria, which results in irritation of the gum line, swelling, and bleeding. For this reason, sore gums occur most frequently in people that do not practice good oral hygiene.

Less common causes of sore gums include a variety of conditions that irritate the gums, such as misaligned teeth, rough edges of fillings, and ill-fitting or unclean mouth appliances. Medications such as birth control pills are also associated with sore gums. Sore gums may also develop during puberty or early adulthood due to hormonal changes. Many people have sore gums to a varying degree at some point in their lives.

Common causes of sore gums

Sore gums may be caused by common oral conditions including:

  • Canker sores
     
  • Gingivitis (infection of the gums)
     
  • Periodontitis (infection of the gum line involving the teeth and bones)
     
  • Dry mouth from a variety of causes, including medications that reduce saliva in the mouth
     
  • Ill-fitting dental restorations or dentures

  • Medications (antiepileptics, antipsychotics, antihypertensives, hormones)
     
  • Poor dental hygiene or nutrition
     
  • Tobacco use
     
  • Viral, bacterial and fungal infections

Other causes of sore gums

Sore gums can also be caused by conditions affecting areas other than the gum including:

  • Anemia
     
  • Behcet’s syndrome (a condition that causes widespread inflammation of blood vessels)
     
  • Cancer
     
  • Diabetes
     
  • Heart disease
     
  • Hormonal changes during puberty or pregnancy
     
  • Human immunodeficiency virus/acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (HIV/AIDS)
     
  • Scurvy (vitamin C deficiency)
     
  • Substance abuse such as methamphetamine use

Serious or life-threatening causes of sore gums

In some cases, sore gums may be a symptom of a serious or life-threatening condition that should be evaluated immediately in an emergency setting. These include:

Questions for diagnosing the cause of sore gums

To diagnose your condition, your doctor or licensed health care practitioner will ask you several questions related to your sore gums including:

  • How long have you felt sore gums?
     
  • Where is the soreness in your gums?
     
  • Do you have any other symptoms?
     
  • What medications are you taking?
     
  • How often do you get your teeth cleaned?

What are the potential complications of sore gums?

Because sore gums can be due to serious diseases, failure to seek treatment can result in serious complications and permanent damage. Once the underlying cause is diagnosed, it is important for you to follow the treatment plan that you and your health care professional design specifically for you to reduce the risk of potential complications including:

  • Abscess of gums
     
  • Gingivitis (infection of the gums)
     
  • Infection or abscess of jaw bones
     
  • Periodontitis (infection of the gum line involving the teeth and bones)
     
  • Spread of infection
     
  • Teeth loss
     
  • Trench mouth

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Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2018 Dec 21
  1. Bleeding gums. Medline Plus, a service of the National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health. http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/ency/article/003062.htm.
  2. Periodontal (gum) disease: causes, symptoms, and treatments. National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research. http://www.nidcr.nih.gov/OralHealth/Topics/GumDiseases/PeriodontalGumDisease.htm.
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