Gingivitis vs Periodontitis – What is the Difference?


Gingivitis and Periodontitis, two words you do not want coming out of your dentist’s mouth at your next checkup. We’ll pause to let everyone take a deep breath here.

Their unpleasant names alone are enough to scare anyone hoping to emerge from their next dental exam with a clean bill of oral health into brushing and flossing more thoroughly and regularly. But what is the difference between these two very serious dental diseases?

Gingivitis is gum inflammation and usually precedes periodontitis, which is the leading cause of tooth loss in adults. For patients diagnosed with gingivitis, it is not all doom and gloom.  Not all gingivitis progresses to periodontitis.

The major difference between the two is that gingivitis is reversible, while periodontitis is not.

Gingivitis: Uncalm Before A Gum Disease Storm

(Definition: Inflamation of the Gums)

In the early stages of gingivitis, plaque (containing bacteria) accumulates in the areas between the teeth.  The gums become inflamed and easily bleed during tooth brushing. Though the gums may be irritated, the teeth are still firmly planted. Clear signs of gingivitis are red, swollen gums or gums that bleed easily when you brush your teeth.

The good news: No irreversible bone damage has occurred at this stage. Gingivitis is the mildest form of gum disease.

But like a 2001 Oldsmobile still running on motor oil from 2001, the prognosis for long-term overall health is poor when gingivitis is left untreated. Left unattended, gingivitis can advance to periodontitis. Gingivitis is a clear warning sign from our teeth and gums that we must be more proactive about our oral and overall health.

Good oral hygiene habits like brushing twice a day, regular dental checkups, daily flossing and use of mouthwash can help, prevent and reverse gingivitis.

Periodontitis: Inflamation of the Surrounding Hard Tissues of the Teeth

(Definition: Serious Gingivia Infection That Damages the Gums and the Jawbone Permanently)

When periodontitis develops, the inner layer of the gum and bone pull away from the teeth and form pockets.

These small spaces between teeth and gums collect debris and can become infected. The body’s immune system fights the bacteria as the plaque spreads and grows below the gum line.

Our immune system’s fight to save our gums is not an easy one. The toxins and poisons produced by the bacteria in plaque teams with our body’s “good” enzymes involved in fighting infections to weaken and break down bone and collective tissue that hold teeth in place. The pockets deepen and even more gum tissue and bone are destroyed.

At this advanced stage of gum disease (also known as aggressive periodontitis), teeth are no longer anchored in place. They become loose. Tooth loss often follows.

Symptoms of periodontitis include continued red, swollen or bleeding gums, pain when chewing, poor tooth alignment, receding gums and clear pockets between teeth and gums. At this point, you must see your dentist or hygienist as soon as possible.

A National Oral Health Crisis

Periodontitis is America’s Public Oral Health Enemy No. 1. As Crest reports, 24 million Americans have lost 6-plus teeth to decay or gum disease and 12 million have lost all of their teeth to decay or gum disease. A 2018 report by the Journal of Dental Research found gum disease affects nearly half of all Americans ages 30 and over. That statistic means almost 65 million Americans are battling gum disease.

Gum disease is something people experiencing symptoms of cannot afford to put off or leave unattended, because untreated periodontitis rarely gets better on its own.

How can you tell if you have gingivitis or periodontitis?

Here are Crest’s tips on how to tell the difference:

  • Age: There is hope for the Snickers and Mountain Dew-loving adolescents periodontitis is rare in teenagers, but they can develop gingivitis.
  • Pain: Pain when chewing can be a sign that your periodontal disease has progressed from gingivitis to periodontitis.
  • Tooth Condition: If you have gingivitis, your teeth should be firmly in place, although your gums may be irritated, red and swollen. If a tooth or teeth are loose, it is more likely you have periodontitis.
  • Breath: If your gingivitis has progressed to periodontitis, you may notice that you have persistent unpleasant breath due to the presence of excess bacteria in your mouth.

Again, if you are experiencing symptoms of gum disease, it is imperative to call your dentist ASAP. Your dentist will examine your teeth and confirm the diagnosis. If caught early, periodontitis can be kept in check with a thorough dental cleaning and a strong at-home oral care routine.

Remember, a gingivitis or early periodontitis diagnosis is not a death sentence for your teeth, but we must take it as a personal call to action to save our teeth. For the best long-term difference between gingivitis and periodontitis is ensuring gingivitis doesn’t become gum disease.

We examine you for gum health at every 6-month check-up. If you have been experiencing any symptoms like bad breath, bleeding or tender gums, please let us know.

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