Red, swollen or tender gums. Bad breath that doesn’t go away. Bleeding when you brush or floss. While any of these mild symptoms could be ignored, if you’re noticing them regularly it’s time to pay attention.

That’s because they could be early symptoms of gum disease, which is called gingivitis. If left untreated, gingivitis can lead to more serious gum disease, as well as other dental issues like sensitive teeth. But the good news is that gingivitis is completely reversible if it’s caught and treated early.

What causes gingivitis?

Gingivitis is most commonly caused by insufficient oral hygiene such as not brushing your teeth properly or enough, not flossing enough or not having regular dental checkups. Without good oral hygiene, plaque builds up on your teeth, and can harden into tartar. Plaque and tartar contain bacteria, and these bacteria can damage your gingiva, leading to inflammation.

In some cases, other factors can also make you more susceptible. Women can get gingivitis and other dental issues during pregnancy as a result of hormonal changes, for example.

Gingivitis symptoms: Signs to watch for

Typically, people start to notice the early stages of gingivitis when they see or feel changes while brushing or flossing their teeth. Symptoms of gingivitis can include one or more of the following:

  • Swollen or puffy gums
  • Gums that are dusky red rather than pale pink
  • Gums that bleed easily when you brush or floss
  • Gums that pull away from the teeth (receding gums)
  • Tender gums
  • Bad breath

Is gingivitis painful most of the time?

Not necessarily. Tender gums can be a symptom of gingivitis, but not everyone may experience it.

When should you see a dentist for gingivitis symptoms?

Having one or more of the above symptoms is reason to see a dentist. But in general, any amount of pain or bleeding in your mouth means it’s time to make an appointment. It can be easy to ignore a little irritation, but it’s important to treat oral health conditions like gingivitis as early as possible.

Is gingivitis contagious?

While the condition isn’t contagious, the bacteria that contribute to gingivitis can be spread through saliva. However, gingivitis is more likely to occur in people who experience poor oral hygiene on a long-term basis.

How is gingivitis diagnosed?

To diagnose gingivitis, a dentist will closely examine your teeth and gums for signs of inflammation, recession and more. They may also ask you questions about your medical and dental histories to find out if you have any risk factors for gingivitis, such as tobacco use or a family history of gum disease.

The dentist or dental hygienist may also measure the depth of the spaces or “pockets” between your teeth and the gum tissue surrounding them. Pockets in a healthy mouth are generally 1-3 millimeters deep. X-rays may also be taken to check for any bone loss.

Is gingivitis curable?

Generally, yes – gingivitis is reversible. If it’s caught early, before any permanent damage has occurred, your gums can recover.

Can you get rid of gingivitis on your own?

Taking steps to improve your oral hygiene can certainly help reduce gingivitis symptoms. But a dental exam is needed to determine how advanced gum disease is. For example, plaque can be removed with good brushing and flossing, but tarter buildup needs to be removed by a dental hygienist.

How do you prevent gingivitis?

There are several oral hygiene habits and lifestyle changes you can make to prevent gingivitis from developing or coming back, including:

  • Brush your teeth at least twice a day, using a soft toothbrush or an electric toothbrush.
  • Floss at least once a day. If you have difficulty flossing, your dentist and dental hygienist can provide you with helpful tools to make this easier.
  • Eat a healthy diet to support your immune system and cut down on between-meal snacking. Snacks typically contain sugar which the bacteria in plaque feed on. This is especially important if you have chronic conditions like heart disease or diabetes. For example, people with diabetes are at higher risk for gum disease.
  • Consider quitting smoking or vaping. Tobacco use contributes to plaque buildup and slows down the healing process. Your dentist and dental hygienist can offer support and resources to help.

Gingivitis treatment options

In addition to the steps you take on your own, a dentist may treat gingivitis with:

  • Scaling and root planing– Some people call this a deep cleaning. Scaling is the process of using a specialized tool to remove tartar and plaque from your teeth. Root planing is removing bacteria from and smoothing the surface of the root tissue on a tooth below the gum line. Smooth root surfaces heal better and make it harder for bacteria to grow.
  • Dental restoration (fillings)– If there are structural issues in your mouth that make oral care harder or that are contributing to irritation, a dentist may suggest fixing them. Common examples include poorly fitting crowns or fillings.
  • Oral care recommendations– These may include prescriptions for specific toothpastes or mouthwashes, tips for improving your daily oral hygiene and a suggested schedule for dental checkups.

What happens if you don’t treat gingivitis?

If left untreated, gingivitis can develop into more advanced gum disease, which is known as periodontitis. Symptoms of periodontitis are more severe, and it can lead to serious infection, tooth abscesses, bone loss and tooth loss.

Don’t wait to look after your oral health

Oral health issues are best treated early, before they become more painful and expensive. So if you’re noticing changes in your mouth that could be signs of gingivitis, or if you have any other concerns about your oral health, making an appointment with a dentist is your next step.

At your appointment, you’ll receive a dental exam, and your dentist will work with you to address any oral health concerns you have.