Periodontal disease (often called gum disease) is a bacterial infection of the gums, teeth and bone. The disease strikes areas below the gum line not visible. Not every person will develop periodontal disease, and it is not a result of aging. Diabetics are at greater risk for gum disease, and often have more severe gum disease.
In certain patients, without special cleanings and maintenance visits, bacterial plaque builds up under the gums. Eventually, this buildup, called calculus or tartar, will cause the gums AND BONE to dissolve away from the teeth, forming pockets around the teeth. These pockets fill with even more bacteria and continue to damage the bone. This destruction of bone is permanent, and can eventually lead to loose teeth, abscesses and teeth that need to be removed or fall out on their own. Patients with untreated gum disease will usually have foul-smelling breath and a bad taste in their mouth. Often, people with untreated gum disease are completely unaware of their foul breath odor.
Both general dentists and periodontists diagnose and treat gum disease. Dentists will send patients to a periodontist for the treatment of advanced gum disease, or for complications of gum disease, such as lost bone and gum tissue. Periodontists also place dental implants. Periodontists require an extra two to three years of specialization after dental school.
In advanced stages of gum disease, the periodontist can perform a surgical procedure to clear infection out of the pockets, reduce how deep they are, and contour the gums and bone into a shape that the patient can maintain at home with their toothbrush and floss. People with periodontal disease also have to use special brushes to clean the areas in their mouth that have been damaged by gum disease.
Periodontal disease is not cured, but maintained over a patient’s lifetime. Patients with a history of gum disease must see the dentist (and/or periodontist) every 3 or 4 months to keep the disease under control.