What causes gum disease?

Hyun J. Song, DDS

Gum disease is a tri-part process where bacteria, food debris, and the host are required. Gingivitis which only affects the soft tissue is reversible however gum diseases, aka, periodontal disease is not a reversible process. Host factors include systemic diseases such as HIV, diabetes, immune disorders. Another main factor that affects the gums diseases is smoking.

Gum disease (periodontal disease) is a slow progressing, chronic disease that infects your gums and the bone surrounding your teeth. If it becomes severe, it will ultimately lead to your teeth falling out. If your gums become inflamed, irritated, infected or bleed easily, you have the beginning stages of gum disease.

Gum disease is caused by bacteria. The bacteria feed off the food that we eat and break it down to form plaque. Plaque is a film that forms on our teeth and is composed of food, bacteria and bacteria waste products. Our body’s immune system is unable to fight the infection by itself. By removing the plaque through brushing and flossing, we maintain healthy gums and allow our bodies to fight off the residual infection. If the plaque stays on your teeth for more a couple of days, it begins to calcify and become calculus. Once calculus forms you are no longer able to remove it with just a tooth brush. It requires a dental cleaning.

Just like the bacteria that cause common cold, the bacteria that cause gum disease can be transferred between people. Kissing, drinking out of the same glass or sharing the same utensils to eat are all ways periodontal pathogens can be transferred between people. 

So, how do you know if you have gum disease if it does not hurt? Most patients who have gum disease have teeth that look longer than normal and/or have big spaces between their teeth. This occurs because the gums and bone have receded leaving more tooth showing. Another sign that you have gum disease is if you have teeth that are loose or move. If your gums bleed while you brush them, you can also have the beginning stages of gum disease. 

Gum disease is a chronic infection that affects the rest of your body as well. There is an abundance of scientific research relating gum disease to premature/low birth weight babies, diabetes, and heart disease. A healthy body means a health mouth as well.
Periodontal disease is an infection that affects the tissues and bone that support teeth. Periodontal disease is caused by plaque (rhymes with back), a sticky film that is always forming on your teeth. Plaque contains bacteria that produce harmful toxins. If teeth are not cleaned well, the toxins can irritate and inflame the gums.
Gum disease is caused by protracted contact of residual dental plaque at the gum margin after brushing and flossing causing gum inflammation. Poor oral hygiene, such as not brushing and flossing often enough or in the proper way is the main culprit. Smoking is known to  increase the risk of gum disease. If you have certain diseases, especially conditions resulting immune-compromise, your risk is also increased. Further, if you take certain prescription medications, including birth control pills, your gums might be affected.

Continue Learning about Gingivitis


There are lots of things that can contribute to the red and swollen gum condition called gingivitis. Hormone changes, cancer, HIV, diabetes all may be contributors, but the primary cause is plaque. Control plaque and it's related ...

bacteria, and you control gingivitis. Proper brushing and flossing is key, and your dentist can do thorough cleanings or prophylaxis. As with many other conditions, it helps to eat properly and if you smoke, give it up.

Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.