Copley News Service

The best way to prevent serious periodontal disease is to get serious about your oral hygiene. And the sooner you start, the better. Gum disease can begin in the adolescent or teenage years, when “they rarely floss for weeks, months, sometimes years at a time,” says Dr. Gary Sigafoos, a San Diego periodontist. “Food and bacteria get stuck between the teeth and are never removed and break down by nature. Parents need to remind their children to floss in the early years so it becomes an ingrained habit.”

But it’s never too late to start taking care of your teeth and gums. The following factors may increase your risk of developing periodontal disease. Periodontists offer tips on how to counter them and save your teeth and your health.

– Inadequate oral hygiene

Most dental experts recommend brushing at least twice a day, morning and night, and flossing at least once a day, preferably before bed. Have your teeth professionally checked and cleaned at least every six months.

– Smoking

Because tobacco can dull the immune response and decrease the amount of oxygen in the mouth, smokers are two to seven times more likely to develop periodontitis than nonsmokers, says the American Academy of Periodontology.

“When you smoke, the first biological tissue the hot (tobacco) gasses come in contact with are the gums,” says periodontist Dr. David Richards, who advises everyone to quit smoking.

– Genetics

Up to 30 percent of the population may be genetically susceptible to gum disease, the academy says. Despite aggressive oral care habits, these people may be six times more likely to develop periodontal disease. If your parents have had gum disease, tell your dentist and hygienist, who may recommend more frequent cleanings and special mouth rinses to reduce the plaque.

– Diabetes

People who have diabetes tend to have more severe gum disease and get it earlier than non-diabetics.

Gum infections can impair a diabetic’s ability to process and/or use insulin, which may cause the diabetes to be more difficult to control and the periodontal infection to be more severe, resulting in a greater loss of bone and connective tissue.

Diabetics need to tell their dentist and hygienist about their condition and be vigilant about oral care and blood sugar management.

– Hormonal changes

During puberty, pregnancy and menopause hormones are changing, and these changes can affect tissues in the body, including gums, which can make them more susceptible to gum disease. “With hormone change, the tissues overreact to plaque and can cause more gingivitis, more puffiness and bleeding of the gums,” says Sigafoos, who notes the problem can be controlled with good home oral care and professional cleanings.

– Stress

Research shows that stress can make it more difficult for the body to fight off infection, including periodontal disease. “Stress can affect your gums big time,” Sigafoos says. “With stress there’s often a lack of sleep and poor diet and (when that happens) the tissues are more sensitive to plaque and there’s often more bleeding (of the gums).”

– Teeth grinding

“Grinding or clenching the teeth softens the bone around the neck of the tooth, and it’s easier for the infection to spread and the bone and ligaments to be injured,” Sigafoos says. If you know you grind your teeth, talk to your dentist about getting a mouth guard to wear when you sleep.

– Medications

Some drugs – including oral contraceptives, anti-depressants and a few epilepsy and heart medicines – can affect your oral health. Tell your dentist or periodontist about all medications you’re taking.

– Poor nutrition

A diet lacking important nutrients can compromise the body’s immune system and make it harder to fight off infection, including periodontal disease.

– Kissing or sharing eating utensils

According to the American Academy of Periodontology, the bacteria that cause periodontal disease can pass through saliva. This means the common contact of saliva in families puts children and couples at risk for contracting the gum disease of another family member.

“Gum disease is communicable if the person you’re giving it to has deep enough pockets (between the teeth and gums) to harbor bacteria,” Sigafoos says.