If your mouth is healthy, your gums should fit snugly around each tooth, with the distance between the gum tissue and its attachment to the tooth being only one to three millimeters in depth. Gum disease can lead to deeper spaces around your teeth called periodontal pockets. If untreated, these pockets can lead to tooth loss.
How Does a Pocket Form?
The bacteria in your mouth continually form a sticky film of plaque on your teeth, especially around the gum line. If not removed, this plaque eventually hardens into calculus (also known as tartar). Plaque and calculus tend to build up at the base of the teeth. Inflammation from this buildup causes an "pocket," or gap, to form between the gums and the teeth. This pocket then fills with more plaque and because it is difficult to remove, forms more calculus. Soft tissue swelling traps the plaque in the pocket. Continued inflammation leads to damage of the tissues and bone surrounding the tooth.
Diagnosing Periodontal Disease
If you're experiencing any of the warning signs of gum disease – bad breath, bleeding, red and swollen gums or gums that have pulled away from your teeth – have your dentist examine your teeth and gums. Beyond a visual assessment of your gum tissue, your dentist will measure the pocket depth around each tooth with a periodontal probe. Periodontal probing determines how severe your disease is. A probe is like a tiny ruler that is gently inserted into pockets around teeth. The deeper the pocket, the more severe the disease.
In healthy gums, the pockets measure less than 3 millimeters—about one-eighth of an inch—and no bone loss appears on X-rays. Gums are tight against the teeth and have pink tips. Pockets that measure 3 millimeters to 5 millimeters indicate signs of disease. Calculus may be progressing below the gumline and some bone loss could be evident. Pockets that are 5 millimeters or deeper indicate a serious condition that usually includes receding gums and a greater degree of bone loss.
Home Care for Prevention
Diagnosing and treating periodontal disease in its early stages can eliminate unhealthy periodontal pockets and curb its effects before it progresses to severe bone loss. The following home care steps will help.
- Use a soft-bristled toothbrush to clean your teeth twice a day, brushing carefully around your gum line where plaque tends to accumulate. Replace your toothbrush every three to four months or when you see the bristles start to wear.
- Floss or use an irrigation device (like the Hydro Floss) at least once a day to clean below the gum line where your toothbrush can't reach and follow your dentist's recommendation for professional cleanings and gum examination.
- Stop smoking. Smoking is one of the most significant risk factors associated with the development of gum disease. Additionally, smoking can lower the chances for successful treatment.