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What is Gum Disease and Can it Affect Kids?

By April 20, 2021May 17th, 2021Oral Health
a kid smiling after a consultation on gum disease

When people think of oral health, the teeth are usually what come to mind first. While, of course, your child’s teeth are important, the gums are important too! Your child’s gums help to support their teeth and hold them in place. The gums also serve as a protective seal, keeping out bad bacteria.

If the gums aren’t given the TLC they deserve, it can lead to gum disease, technically known as periodontal disease. While gum disease is more common in adults, it can occur in kids. The good news is, children are a lot more likely to have the milder version, called gingivitis, which is treatable.

What is Gum Disease?

First things first, what is gum disease? Gum disease, or periodontal disease, is an infection in the tissues that support the teeth. Everyone, including little ones, has bacteria in their mouth. The bacteria mixes with food particles, saliva and mucus to form plaque, which is a sticky bacterial film that builds up on the teeth and along the gum line. If plaque isn’t removed with regular brushing, flossing and professional dental cleanings, it can result in a gum infection in a child.

In its earliest stages, gum disease is called gingivitis. With gingivitis, the gums are inflamed and irritated, but they’re still doing their job of supporting the teeth. Thankfully, gingivitis is reversible and it’s unlikely that this form of gum disease in kids will lead to permanent damage if it’s treated by your pediatric dentist

If gingivitis isn’t treated, however, it can progress into periodontitis, the more severe form of gum disease. When someone has periodontitis, the gums pull away from the teeth and pockets, or spaces, develop between the teeth and gums. Debris can get trapped in these pockets, causing infection that spreads below the gum line. The toxins produced by the bacteria in plaque, as well as the body’s own infection-fighting response, cause the bone and connective tissue that hold the teeth in place to break down. The teeth become loose and, in extreme cases, fall out. 

Periodontitis isn’t curable, but we can treat it and stop its progression so that it doesn’t get worse or cause tooth loss. While children can have periodontitis, it’s pretty rare and when it does happen, it typically occurs in teenagers and young adults. 

In this post, our Park Slope, Williamsburg and DUMBO, Brooklyn pediatric dentists will answer:

What Causes Gum Disease in Children?

The causes of gum disease in children can include:

1. Poor Oral Hygiene

The primary cause of gum disease in kids (and adults) is an accumulation of plaque, which occurs when plaque isn’t removed with thorough brushing and flossing. Once plaque hardens into tartar, it can’t be scrubbed away at home with a regular toothbrush. Only the specialized tools used at the dentist’s office during cleanings can eliminate it. In addition to plaque, if food particles get stuck in the gums and aren’t brushed and flossed away, irritation or an infection of the gums can happen. 

2. Certain Illnesses and Conditions

Some conditions, such as diabetes and autoimmune diseases, can put patients at higher risk for developing gum disease.

3. Medications

 Certain medications lead to dry mouth, which is when saliva production is significantly decreased. Saliva is super important for washing away plaque, bacteria and food debris, and balancing the pH in the mouth. Other medications can lead to the abnormal growth of gum tissue, which also heightens the risk of gum disease in children. 

4. Mouth Breathing

Mouth breathing is a cause of chronic dry mouth and, in turn, increases the risk of gingivitis. 

5. Diet

A diet that contains a lot of sugar and starches or lacks certain minerals and vitamins for healthy teeth and gums, may boost the odds of a child developing gum disease. This is because the bacteria in the mouth feed on sugars and starches. Additionally, nutritional deficiencies can make it more difficult for the body to fight infection and for the gum tissue to repair itself. 

6. Hormonal Changes

Hormonal changes, like those that occur during puberty, can put teenagers at risk for periodontal disease. Why? Well, during puberty, blood circulation to the gums amps up in response to the increase in hormones, including progesterone and estrogen, making gums more sensitive and easily irritated by plaque and food particles. This sensitivity usually decreases as puberty progresses. 

7. Teeth Clenching and Grinding

The force from excessive clenching and grinding may cause gum recession and create more areas for bacteria to collect.  Sometimes, teeth grinding in kids is obvious. Other times, it’s a habit that occurs at night that you may not be aware of. If your child complains of a sore jaw in the morning, they could be clenching or grinding their teeth. 

8. Genetics

A family history of periodontal disease could make kids more susceptible to the condition.

What are the Gum Disease Symptoms?

The following are signs of gum disease in children:

  • Swollen gums
  • Bright red gums (healthy gums are light pink in color)
  • Bleeding after kids’ brush or floss their teeth
  • Receding gums (the gums are pulling away from the teeth)
  • Recurrent bad breath that doesn’t go away with brushing and flossing
  • Changes in a child’s bite (the way the upper and lower teeth come together)
  • Loose teeth or teeth that begin to separate causing spacing 
  • Pus between the gums and teeth

What are the Options for Gum Disease Treatment in Kids?

As for how to treat gum disease, most of the time, a professional cleaning at your pediatric dental office and a dedicated homecare routine will get rid of soft plaque, tartar (hardened plaque) and bacteria to clear up gingivitis. Seeking treatment at the first signs of gum disease in kids will boost the odds that we can quickly and easily banish the problem and get their gums back in tip-top shape.

For a more severe gum infection in a child, or gum disease that has advanced into periodontitis, occasionally, antibiotics could be needed. In these cases, gum disease treatment in kids could also entail more intensive types of dental cleanings and remedies like prescription mouthwash. Rarely, surgical procedures would be recommended to stop the progression of the disease and eliminate an active infection.

How Can Gum Disease in Children be Prevented?

  • Establish Excellent Oral Hygiene Habits Early On – Good oral hygiene is the most important preventative step you can take to ward off gum disease in kids. Start brushing your baby’s teeth as soon as their first tooth erupts with a soft-bristled toothbrush and a tiny smear of fluoride toothpaste no larger than a grain of rice. Brush your little one’s teeth twice a day, allowing them to get more involved in the process when they reach toddlerhood. As soon as any two teeth are touching, floss kids’ teeth once daily. 
  • Encourage Kids to Eat a Healthy Diet Low in Sugar – A healthy diet full of nutrients that support periodontal health will go a long way in keeping gums in excellent condition. Limit sugar and simple starches, like white bread and chips, so the bacteria in the mouth aren’t constantly having a feeding frenzy. 
  • Visit the Pediatric Dentist Regularly – Keeping up with routine dental visits for check-ups and professional cleanings is another key way to prevent gum disease. At your child’s dental exam, their pediatric dentist will not only look at their teeth, but they’ll also do a periodontal evaluation. They’ll be able to help you develop the ideal homecare routine for your child’s gums. During professional cleanings, the hygienist will get rid of any existing plaque and tartar. If your dentist does spot signs of gum disease, they can recommend a course of action. Early detection of gingivitis ensures treatment will be successful and non-invasive, and that infection won’t progress into periodontitis. 
  • Keep an Eye on Your Child’s Gums – Make it a habit to take a look at your child’s gums on a regular basis. If you spot swelling, redness, gum recession or bleeding, schedule a dental appointment. 

Whether you have concerns about your child’s gums or you’d just like to take all of the necessary steps to prevent gum disease, the team at Bitesize Pediatric Dentistry has you covered. Schedule a visit with a Park Slope, Williamsburg or DUMBO dentist for kids today! Our experienced pediatric dentists will take all aspects of your child’s oral health into account, including their gums, to keep their smile strong and bright. 

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