Swollen Gums

Medically Reviewed By William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
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What are swollen gums?

Gum swelling results from excess fluid (edema) in the soft tissues of the gums and may be accompanied by redness, pain, sores, ulcers and bleeding. Poor oral hygiene, resulting in inflammation or infection, is the most common cause of swollen gums. 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, swollen gums may be present in only a small part of a gum (sore or ulcer), or at the gum line (gingivitis and periodontitis). Other conditions may produce swelling in the entire area of the gums. Gingivitis and other types of inflammatory conditions are among the most common causes of swollen gums.

Vitamin deficiencies, such as vitamin C deficiency, which causes scurvy, and iron deficiency anemia, can be associated with symptoms that involve both the mouth and the gums. Rare disorders of the immune system, such as human immunodeficiency virus/acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (HIV/AIDS) or Behcet’s syndrome (disease characterized by widespread inflammation of blood vessels), can also produce symptoms in the mouth and gums. Infections of the skin and soft tissue (cellulitis) or bone (osteomyelitis) are further causes of swollen gums.

The duration and course of swollen gums vary widely, depending on the cause. Symptoms caused by inflammation often have a sudden onset. In other cases, swollen gums resulting from underlying vitamin deficiencies or chronic conditions 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 swollen gums but mild symptoms recur or are persistent.

What other symptoms might occur with swollen gums?

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

Common symptoms that may occur along with swollen gums

Swollen gums may accompany other symptoms affecting the gums or mouth including:

  • Bleeding gums

  • Bright red or red-purple appearance to gums

  • 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

  • Shiny gums

  • Sore smaller than about half an inch, or 12 millimeters, in diameter

  • Ulcer with white or yellow center

Other symptoms that may occur along with swollen gums

Swollen gums may accompany symptoms related to other body systems including:

Symptoms that might indicate a serious condition

In some cases, swollen 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 swollen gums along with other serious symptoms including:

What causes swollen gums?

Swollen 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 swollen 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, swollen gums occur most frequently in people that do not practice good oral hygiene.

Less common causes of swollen 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 phenytoin and birth control pills, and heavy metals, such as lead and bismuth, are also associated with swollen gums. Swollen gums may also develop during puberty or early adulthood due to hormonal changes. Many people have swollen gums to a varying degree sometime in their lives.

Common causes of swollen gums

Swollen gums may be caused by common disorders including:

  • Bacterial infections
  • Canker sores
  • Dry mouth, and medications that reduce saliva in the mouth
  • Gingivitis (infection of the gums)
  • Hormonal changes during puberty or pregnancy
  • Ill-fitting dental restorations or dentures
  • Medications (phenytoin, cyclosporine, calcium antagonists)
  • Periodontitis (infection of the gum line involving the teeth and bones)
  • Poor dental hygiene or poor nutrition
  • Tobacco use
  • Viral and fungal infections

Other causes of swollen gums

Swollen gums can also be caused by other conditions including:

  • Anemia
  • Behcet’s syndrome (disease characterized by widespread inflammation of blood vessels)
  • Cancer
  • Diabetes
  • Heart disease
  • Hormonal changes during puberty or pregnancy
  • Scurvy (vitamin C deficiency)
  • Substance abuse such as methamphetamine use

Serious or life-threatening causes of swollen gums

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

  • Human immunodeficiency virus/acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (HIV/AIDS)
  • Oral cancer

Questions for diagnosing the cause of swollen gums

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

  • How long have you felt swollen gums?
  • Where do you feel your swollen 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 swollen gums?

Because swollen 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)
  • Social isolation
  • Spread of infection
  • Teeth loss
  • Trench mouth
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Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2021 Jan 3
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THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.
  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.