Periodontal disease has wide-ranging effects.

Have you ever cleaned only the most visible bits of mildew in your bathroom right before guests arrive, only to find that it spreads so quickly that it’s like you did nothing after only a few days? This is what it’s like when you don’t floss. Brushing your teeth removes some plaque, but it simply can’t reach all the nooks and crannies that floss can. This enables bacteria to thrive and spread in your mouth. It’s not just your teeth that are left vulnerable, however; it’s your gums as well.

The buildup of bacteria around your gums can lead to periodontal disease, an infection in your gums that causes them to become inflamed. Left unchecked, periodontal disease has wide-ranging effects that can lead to long-term damage. Unfortunately, many people don’t know the risks periodontal disease carries or how to prevent it, especially since it seems so unobtrusive and painless at first. To clear up a little of the confusion and help you understand the importance of preventing it, here are a few facts about periodontal disease.

1. Periodontal disease is the leading cause of tooth loss in America.

When we think about oral health, we tend to think about the health of our teeth, but that’s only half right. Did you know that your gums are, in a way, the ground in which the foundations of your teeth are set? If the health of your gums is compromised, so is the health of your teeth. Your gums help support your teeth and act as a seal against bacteria, protecting the vulnerable tooth roots and bone that supports them from infection. As periodontal disease progresses, however, your gums begin to pull away from your teeth, allowing bacteria to settle in. The bacteria begin attacking the roots of your teeth and the bone that supports them, and without treatment, your teeth will begin to fall out.

In fact, periodontal disease is so common—about half of all Americans aged 30 and up have some form of it—that it’s the leading cause of tooth loss in America. Thankfully, if you lose your teeth to gum disease, there are plenty of treatments you can choose from to restore the function and appearance of your teeth, including dental bridges, implants, and partial or full dentures. It’s always best to keep as many of your natural teeth as possible, however, so it’s incredibly important that you take steps to prevent gum disease or catch and treat it early.

2. It’s often painless, but there are warning signs you can look out for.

While you can trust pain to cue you in to the existence of a bad cavity or a cracked tooth, periodontal disease is usually painless until it’s extremely advanced. As a result, you should know the signs of gum disease and pay close attention to the health of your gums. If you have periodontal disease, your gums will usually bleed easily, such as when you floss or even brush your teeth, and may appear swollen or inflamed, with darker red or purplish coloring. You might also suffer from bad breath that returns very soon after you have brushed your teeth. As gum disease progresses, you may notice your gums pulling away from your teeth, the formation of deep pockets in your gums, pockets of pus, or loose teeth. If you notice any of these symptoms, especially the more serious ones, you should make an appointment with your dentist right away.

3. It can harm your overall health over time.

Periodontal disease can wreak havoc on your oral health, but it can also be incredibly harmful to your overall health over a long period of time. Once bacteria get beneath your gumline, they can get into your bloodstream. In people with weakened immune systems, this can cause devastating infections throughout their bodies, including endocarditis, which is an infection of the heart valves. Strong immune systems kill the invading bacteria before they can cause a direct infection, but a constant stream of bacteria in your bloodstream causes a systemic inflammatory response, which can be devastating in the long term. An increasing number of scientific studies are linking periodontal disease to an increased risk of heart disease, stroke, pneumonia, ulcers, and uncontrolled diabetes, as well as a significantly increased risk of pregnant women giving birth to premature or low birth-weight babies.

4. Periodontal disease is easily preventable.

Thankfully, there’s good news: For most people, preventing periodontal disease is as simple and easy as committing yourself to a good oral hygiene routine. This includes brushing your teeth for two minutes twice a day, as well as using mouthwash and flossing at least once a day. Flossing is a particularly important part of preventing periodontal disease since it removes plaque from around your gums, so make sure not to skip it. It may start out as a time-consuming process, but flossing regularly will help you become faster and more efficient.

If you have risk factors that increase your likelihood of getting gum disease, such as smoking, diabetes, or autoimmune diseases, you may have to take extra care with your oral hygiene to protect your gums. There are several steps you can try that won’t add any extra time to your oral hygiene routine, such as using a mouthwash that’s designed to help you combat gingivitis. If you’re still struggling with gum disease despite great oral hygiene, you can always schedule an appointment with your dentist for some advice on the best way to move forward.

5. It can be spotted and treated early if you visit your dentist regularly.

Dentists are trained to spot issues like gum disease early, so it’s incredibly important that you visit your dentist every six months for an evaluation. You should also schedule an appointment if you notice symptoms of gum disease that aren’t going away with good oral hygiene. Your dentist will check the depth of the pockets in your gums to ensure they’re healthy and take note of any bleeding that occurs during your in-office cleaning. If they do spot signs of gum disease, they’ll be able to give you great advice about your next steps. Gingivitis can usually be treated at home with rigorous oral hygiene and antibiotics or special mouthwash, if necessary, but periodontitis requires more in-depth treatments. Which treatment you’ll need varies on a case-by-case basis, however, so it’s vital that you speak to your dentist about your options.

Although your gums aren’t the most commanding part of your smile, they play a vital role in the health of your teeth and the health of your entire body. It might seem time-consuming at first, but dedicating a few minutes to your oral hygiene each day is a small price to pay for the gains it provides. You’ll save yourself time, money, and pain, all while safeguarding your health for both the present and the future.