Gums can become swollen for a variety of reasons, not all of which require an immediate trip to the dentist’s office. However, while not an emergency, swollen gums signal that something is wrong and you will need professional care. Swelling can occur overnight because of a foreign body getting stuck below the gums, causing an infection similar to a splinter in your finger. It could also be the first sign of gum disease. Let’s take a closer look at some possible causes for gum swelling and what can help relieve it.
Gingivitis (“gingival” = gums, “itis” = inflammation) is a common gum irritation caused by less-than-adequate or inefficient oral hygiene. An early stage of gum disease, gingivitis is characterized by gum swelling, redness and/or bleeding during brushing or flossing of the teeth. This inflammation is your body’s way of fighting harmful bacteria in the dental plaque that builds up on your teeth when they aren’t cleaned effectively. If gingivitis is the cause of your gum swelling, try taking a little extra time to make sure your brushing and flossing is up to par; you may find that this will reduce the swelling in just 7 to 14 days, and certainly the bleeding will stop. If you are unsure if your gums are still swollen or of how to brush or how to floss effectively, your dentist or dental hygienist can give you a refresher course.
Gingivitis can be aggravated by the hormones of pregnancy. But even if that is the case, it’s important to remember that the presence of harmful bacteria is what’s causing the gingivitis—not the pregnancy itself. Pregnancy hormones causes a change in the chemistry below the gums, allowing for more powerful bacteria to flourish. These bacteria must be controlled with proper oral hygiene and regular professional teeth cleanings, or this mild form of gum disease could progress to periodontitis (“peri” = around, “odont” = tooth, “itis” = inflammation) and bone loss.
Orthodontic treatment can also make a person more susceptible to gingivitis and swollen gums for two reasons: For one, braces can make it difficult to remove all the plaque between teeth and at the gum line; for another, the gum tissues occasionally react to the presence of orthodontic hardware by swelling and overgrowing. If this is the case, your orthodontist will consider referring you back to your general dentist or periodontist for proper treatment. He or she may recommend that you use special appliances (such as interdental cleaners or floss holders) to better clean your teeth where oral appliances may interfere.
Sometimes a more serious gum infection can develop when bacteria related to gum disease or a foreign object (such as a piece of popcorn) becomes sealed off beneath the gum line. This can create a pus-filled abscess under your gums. This condition can be quite painful, but isn’t always. If you have a gum abscess, it will need to be treated by your dentist or periodontist (gum specialist). The abscess will be drained, and you may also receive antibiotics. Depending on what caused the abscess—gum disease or an infection in the tooth’s pulp tissue, for example—periodontal treatment or a root canal may also be needed.
Gum swelling can also indicate deep decay within a tooth, which has spread into the gum via the tooth’s root. This is less likely to happen if you make regular visits to your general dentist, when he or she can detect and treat minor cavities before they become significant problems. Untreated decay can spread deeper and deeper into the tooth until it reaches the soft central tissue, called pulp. If the pulp within your tooth is infected or has died, a root canal treatment may be needed to save the tooth. If the tooth can’t be saved, it will require extraction.
Less common causes of gum swelling include:
- Nutritional deficiency, particularly of vitamin C. Make sure your diet includes plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables to avoid this problem.
- Systemic disease; uncontrolled diabetes, for example, can affect your periodontal health.
- Oral care products; if you have switched to a new toothpaste or mouthwash recently, it may be that your gums are sensitive (think allergy) to an ingredient in it.
- Medication; certain drugs (anti-seizure medications, for example) may produce gum swelling as a side effect.
- Poorly fitting oral appliances, such as dentures, can rub against the gums and cause irritation.
If your gums are bothering you, try to improve your oral hygiene and your diet while avoiding alcohol and tobacco, which can irritate swollen gums. If you are unsure of what is causing your gums to swell or are unable to get the situation under control in a reasonable amount of time, make sure to see your dentist.