If you notice your gums bleed when you brush your teeth or your teeth are sensitive to cold drinks and foods, like ice cream, it could be because your gums are receding. And while gum recession is common, there is a lot you could be doing — or not doing — to prevent and treat the condition.
Some people simply have thinner gums due to their genetics, which can make gum recession more likely, Dr. Purnima Kumar, professor at the University of Michigan School of Dentistry and the department of periodontics and oral medicine.
Having braces can also predispose some people to receding gums, depending on how their teeth settle. But even people with thinning gums who’ve had braces aren’t guaranteed to have gum recession, Kumar says.
“People with thinning gums can go through their entire life without ever having a single recession on a single tooth,” she says. “Gum recession is entirely preventable even if you have thin gums and you have to go through braces.”
Gum recession is a sign of gum disease, the Mayo Clinic explains, and it can lead to serious issues — even the loss of your teeth — if left untreated.
But just having some receding gums doesn’t mean you’re doomed to those severe consequences, Kumar says. There’s a lot that periodontists and patients can do to correct existing recession and prevent more, Kumar says, “and make sure that we’re not overreacting but also that we’re not in a state of apathy about it.”
Here are a few gum health mistakes that Kumar frequently discusses with her patients — and how to correct them.
You’re not keeping up with basic oral hygiene.
Good oral hygiene means brushing your teeth twice a day with a fluoride-containing toothpaste, the American Dental Association says.
You should also be cleaning between your teeth — flossing — at least once a day and visiting your dentist for regular cleanings, the ADA says. These healthy dental habits will help prevent gum disease (including recession) and cavities.
“Good brushing and flossing is not simply a New Year’s resolution,” Kumar says. “It’s something that you practice and you do every day and incorporate into your daily routine.”
You’re brushing too aggressively.
On the flip side, you don’t necessarily want to be an overachiever here. Brushing too hard can cause inflammation and, down the line, gum recession.
“You should remove all the stuff that’s stuck on your teeth, but you really shouldn’t be scrubbing away at them,” Kumar says.
Be sure to use a brush with soft bristles to avoid damaging the gums, TODAY.com explained previously. And while it’s fine to use a standard manual brush, some people find it easier to reach those difficult spots and to apply the correct level of pressure for the recommended amount of time when using electric brushes.
You’re smoking, vaping or using chewing tobacco.
Smokeless forms of tobacco that are held in the mouth (like chewing tobacco, snuff or snus) are definitely associated with gum recession, Kumar says. But vaping and smoking cigarettes can also indirectly contribute to gum recession.
“Smoking reduces the blood supply to your gums,” Kumar says. “If you already have thin gums and then you know you choke off the off the blood supply, that can contribute.” But, she says, the evidence isn’t as straightforward as it is for smokeless tobacco.
When it comes to vaping, that “doesn’t change the blood supply, but it makes the outer layer of your mucosa very thin,” she explains. That can lead to a phenomenon called hyperkeratinization, which causes your gums to bleed more and makes it harder for them to heal if they get cut, Kumar says. This can also contribute, indirectly, to gum recession.
You’re ignoring early signs of gum inflammation.
It’s important not to dismiss the early warning signs of gum inflammation because that can lead to recession.
“The first thing that you will see is a milky deposit on your tooth, which is the plaque,” Kumar says.
We normally have helpful bacteria living on our teeth, but they usually exist as a thin film that’s not visible to the naked eye, she explains. Once these films are thick enough that you can see them, “they are way too thick to be supportive of your health,” Kumar says.
Next, your gums will start to turn red. And, finally, they will start to bleed. If your gums are bleeding, that’s your body “sending you big warning signs that things are going south really quickly here now,” Kumar says.
If you notice the first signs of gum inflammation, like plaque on your teeth, you may just need to do a better job of staying on top of oral hygiene basics. But when your gums start to get red and angry, that means it’s probably time to see your dentist for a cleaning, Kumar says.
You’re not talking about gum health before getting work done.
Gum health should be a part of your conversations with your dentist — especially before going through braces or getting a crown.
Getting that kind of work done can set you up for gum recession, especially if you already have thin gums or are prone to recession, Kumar says.
“So before you take those kinds of steps, make very sure that your gum can actually withstand that kind of pressure,” she says. Your dentist may set you up with a periodontist to discuss your options before moving forward with the work you were originally going to get done.
The specialist might suggest procedures such as a gum graft to address areas where gums have already receded. Or they might discuss a frenectomy, which involves surgically cutting or removing the “hammock” of tissue that attaches the inner lip to the gums if it’s pulling too much, Kumar says.
She adds, “It’s really important to have these conversations prior to embarking on any treatment.”
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