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Bleeding gums? What it could mean for your health.

Mom and daughter brushing their teeth

Sore and tender spots around your teeth can be a warning sign of disease. Here’s how to keep your mouth happy and healthy.   

Jennifer Thomas

By Jennifer Thomas

Are you seeing red when you brush your teeth? It could just mean that you’re being a bit too aggressive with your toothbrush. But it could also be an important sign of something more serious.

“If you see that your gums are bleeding and you are not on blood thinners, there is a problem," says Philippe Hujoel, PhD, DDS. Dr. Hujoel is a periodontist and an adjunct professor of epidemiology at the University of Washington School of Public Health in Seattle.

Bleeding gums can be a symptom of early-stage gum disease, known as gingivitis. It can also signal a more severe form of gum disease called periodontitis.

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So what's the difference between gingivitis and periodontitis? Gingivitis is most often caused when a buildup of plaque on the teeth isn’t removed and is left to harden into tartar. That tartar can irritate your gums, causing them to become red or swollen and even bleed. If left untreated, it can lead to periodontitis. Aside from continued bleeding and red, swollen gums, signs of periodontitis can include pain when you chew and even tooth loss.

Gum disease is very common: About 46% of people over age 30 have it, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). And the good news is that when it’s treated early, it can often be reversed, says Robert Glickman, DMD. He’s a professor of oral and maxillofacial surgery at New York University College of Dentistry in New York City.

Not sure if your bleeding gums are cause for concern? Here’s what you need to know.

What causes bleeding gums?

Not all gum bleeding is caused by disease or infection. Brushing or flossing too hard or wearing dentures that don’t fit right can make your gums bleed. But a common cause is not taking care of your teeth.

That might mean not brushing or flossing enough. Or not regularly seeing a dentist and having your teeth cleaned. All of these allow more plaque to build up on your teeth.

Other causes of bleeding gums can include:

  • Smoking, which doubles your risk of developing gum disease because it makes it harder for your body to fight off infections. Once you have gum damage, smoking also makes it harder for them to heal. (Need help quitting? We’ve got aids just for you.)
  • Hormonal changes during pregnancy, which can make your gums more sensitive.
  • Vitamin C deficiency. Dr. Hujoel is among the authors of a 2021 study in Nutrition Reviews. The study found that gum bleeding was often connected to low vitamin C levels, which can weaken gums and hinder wound healing.
  • Certain conditions such as diabetes, which can also weaken your immune system and make it easier for bacteria to cause infection.

The dangers of gum disease

If gingivitis is left untreated and progresses into periodontitis, it can cause serious damage to your gum tissue and bone. That could eventually lead to tooth loss.

Gum disease can also affect more than just your mouth, says Dr. Glickman.

The bacteria that causes gum disease can get into your bloodstream through the gums. Over time, this can damage other parts of your body, such as the blood vessels of the brain and heart. In this way, gum disease has been connected to health issues such as diabetes, heart disease, stroke and rheumatoid arthritis, Dr. Glickman says.

Plus, periodontitis can also make those conditions worse, he says. People who have gum disease and diabetes, for example, often have a more difficult time managing their blood sugar. Researchers aren’t sure why, but it may have something to do with inflammation and changes to the body’s blood vessels.

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How to treat gum disease

If you have gingivitis, treatment can include proper brushing, flossing, eating right and quitting smoking, Dr. Glickman says.

You should brush 2 times a day with a soft-bristled brush and floss daily to help remove plaque. And opt for fluoride toothpaste. Fluoride helps rebuild tooth enamel, making teeth stronger and more resistant to decay, says the American Dental Association (ADA).

You can also use special toothpastes and mouthwashes that contain bacteria-killing ingredients to fight gum disease. An example is the prescription-strength solution called Peridex®. Still, the ADA says the exact products you use don’t matter as much as using them consistently.

See your dentist regularly and have your teeth cleaned twice a year, Dr. Glickman says. If your gum disease is uncontrolled, you might need more regular cleanings or deep cleanings known as scaling, he adds.

It’s also important to think about what you’re eating. Dr. Hujoel suggests avoiding high-glycemic foods — ones that cause your blood sugar to spike the most. These include white bread, white rice and sugary cereals. “Sugar can be an arch criminal when it comes to gum bleeding,” he says. That’s because it feeds the bacteria that create plaque. (Check out these 21 snacks that keep your blood sugar steady.)

Also, make sure you’re getting enough vitamin C in your diet. Dr. Hujoel recommends that adults get about 100 mg of vitamin C per day from fresh fruits and vegetables. And think about getting even more if you’re pregnant or you smoke.

Foods high in vitamin C include:

  • Bell peppers
  • Oranges
  • Kiwi
  • Broccoli
  • Brussels sprouts
  • Strawberries

Your teeth have a big job. So the next time you spot some pink in the sink, take stock of how well you’re treating them. And be sure to tell your dentist so that he or she can help you figure out the cause and come up with a treatment plan.

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