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Heal Thyself—Spotlight on Gum Disease
By Catherine Guthrie
There aren’t many health habits I’m religious about, but I am a flossing zealot. I vividly remember the day I was baptized into my newfound religion. Eight years ago I stood at a coworker’s cubicle, jaw agape at a description of her father’s dental nightmare. The story involved the poor man’s gums being scraped off, put into some kind of blender, and then stuck back in his mouth again. The image of gum tissue whirling around in a blender has terrified me into flossing every day since.
But lately I’ve begun to worry that flossing alone isn’t enough to ensure that my gums won’t ever end up in a small kitchen appliance. Even with my diligent routine, I still have the occasional bleeder or sensitive spot near my incisors. According to the American Dental Academy, both could be signs of gum disease.
If this is my fate, I’m in good company. Up to 80 percent of Americans have some form of gum disease, ranging from a simple case of mild inflammation to the kiss-your-teeth-good-bye variety. (If your dentist has ever said you have “pockets,” you’ve got it.) When it comes to frequency of infections, gingivitis (the garden-variety version) is second only to the common cold.
Why so ubiquitous? Consider the odds: The number of microorganisms in a single human mouth is greater than the number of people on the planet. That’s right: the entire planet.
What’s more, gum disease is sneaky. “Pain is usually the first real indicator that you’ve got a problem, but by the time it’s painful, it’s really far gone,” says Michael Rethman, president of the American Academy of Periodontology. That means it isn’t likely to get your attention until it’s progressed beyond the scope of your…Scope. (Actually, Listerine is the only mouthwash clinically proven to kill the bacteria.) Even dyed-in-the-wool flossers like myself aren’t immune.
That’s because some of those billions of bacteria can evade brushing and flossing and nestle into the teeny hammock of skin, called the sulcus, where gum meets tooth. As they attract more of their own kind, a sticky, colorless plaque forms. In less than a day, plaque can harden into tartar, which clings to teeth so stubbornly it can only be scraped off by a professional wielding a sharp instrument. Toxins produced by the bacteria go on to cause inflammation, and before you know it you’ve got a chronic, low-grade infection called gingivitis.
Left untreated, gingivitis can progress to periodontitis, and that’s where the real trouble begins. At this stage, the hammock pulls farther away from the tooth and deepens, creating a gap all the way down to the root and leaving not just the tooth but the underlying bone vulnerable to infection. Eventually the tooth may loosen and even fall out.
That’s bad news for more than just your mouth: The chronic inflammation triggered by periodontitis is thought to set off an inflammatory cascade throughout the body that raises a person’s risk of more deadly disease, including diabete...
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