Just in case you are unaware of it, colonies of bacteria are roosting happily in your mouth. If you don't watch out, they are likely to cause gum disease, leading to loss of not only teeth, but a substantial portion of your jaw bone too.

Gingivitis and Periodontal disease are forms of gum disease that are likely to cause pain, and in an advanced stage, even disfigurement. Dentists use the analogy of the finger nail to explain what happens to the gum. With the nail, there is a lot of soft tissue covering the hard tissue and in the space between the two, dirt is likely to accumulate.

Similarly, the tooth is hard tissue embedded inside the bone and connected and covered by soft tissue – the gum. Here too, there is potential space for infection, and considering there are trillions of bacteria already present in the mouth, these low-oxygen, moist spaces are characteristic breeding ground for the pathogens. The moral of the story is that unless you are careful with oral hygiene, gum disease is probably on its way.

S.M.Balaji of Balaji Dental and Craniofacial Hospital, explains that gum disease is caused when plaque builds up on the teeth and gums. Plaque contains bacteria that produce acids that damage the gums, causing inflammation and bleeding (gingivitis). At an advanced stage, this becomes pyorrhoea. If unchecked this can lead to the acid eating into the jaw bones too.

“The main purpose of brushing, flossing, and gargling is to remove the bacteria. Our efforts are concentrated on removing the pathogens. If one slackens in this, there are chances that gum inflammation begins, along with bad breath. Again, if this is overlooked, or not treated professionally, the bacteria could destroy the supporting jaw bones; also go via the blood stream to the heart and lead to heart disease,” Prof. Balaji said.

In fact during the recent meeting of the Indian Dental Research Foundation, the results of a research study which found the same colonies of bacteria that is present in gingivitis in the heart as well, were presented. In pregnant women, it can pass the placental barrier with possible consequences of low weight babies, and future systemic diseases.

V. Rangarajan, prosthodontist and implantologist, says, “We see a lot of people with gum disease – nearly 10-20 per cent of the practice. The thing is most of them don't even realise they have the disease. They come to us, if we are lucky, with a moderate level of disease.” But what is important in gum disease is prevention. And in the even that does not happen, early detection and treatment.

“People think that teeth fall because of old age. But that is not true – gum disease eats away the bone around the tooth, which then shakes and falls. In fact, it is not necessary at all that with age, all teeth should fall,” Dr. Rangarajan stresses. Therefore, gum disease can occur in youngsters as well.

Those who particularly have to watch out are those who have inherited bad teeth. Mismatched sizes of jaw and teeth rows open up the playing field for the bacteria. “However, more importantly, oral hygiene is inherited, it is learned behaviour. We need to inculcate good brushing and flossing habits among adults and children,” Prof. Balaji adds.