Take the bite out of gum disease

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— Flossing we all know we should do it. However, roughly half of us ignore this good health habit.

"Establishing good habits can be difficult, and most people have a hard time building flossing into their daily regimen," explained Shelly Peters, registered dental hygienist with the Steamboat Springs office of Terrance Riley, DDS.

Peters said gum disease can be prevented by using a simple, three-step process. "Floss every day, brush your teeth two to three times each day and use Listerine mouthwash after flossing to get rid of bacteria in your mouth," she said. "If these guidelines are not followed, we can see dental problems occurring as early as puberty."

The key to a low incidence of gum disease is the prevention of plaque buildup. Most people have a mild form of gum disease called gingivitis or inflammation of the gums. Some experience severe forms that can lead to eventual destruction of the bone that supports the teeth and even tooth loss.

"At our office, we really see a wide variety of gum disease. I'd say we see all forms," Peters said. According to the American Dental Association, about 75 percent of Americans older than 35 have some form of periodontal (gum) disease.

Gum disease is caused by plaque buildup along the gum line and in between your teeth. Regular brushing cleans the surface of your teeth but cannot reach in between.

Flossing every day prevents the plaque from hardening into tartar.

With conscientious brushing and flossing as well as regular professional cleanings every six months, you can reverse gingivitis. If left untreated, gingivitis can progress to advanced gum disease.

The plaque eventually creeps below the gum line where it attracts bacteria that thrive in this oxygen-free environment. When your body's immune system attacks the infection, it has a tendency to attack your gum tissue as well.

This causes deepening pockets between your teeth and gums, which become home to even more destructive bacteria. If left long enough, the bacteria can erode the ligament and bone beneath your gums and eventually the affected tooth will loosen and then fall out.

Most cases of gum disease respond well to an aggressive cleaning technique called root planing and scaling. A dentist uses a special instrument to remove the deep plaque and tartar. The outer layer of the tooth is then shaved off because it contains toxic bacterial byproducts. A full course of deep cleaning usually takes several visits. In the most serious cases, surgery is necessary.

It is rare to see gum disease progress rapidly, which means most people have time to seek treatment before damage becomes irreversible.

Your hygienist and dentist should check your gums during routine exams by scanning your x-rays for bone loss, probing your gum line for areas that bleed easily and measuring any pockets between your teeth and gums.

"Of course, as with most forms of disease, prevention is the key. Brushing, flossing and rinsing with mouthwash have been shown to not only prevent gum disease but can add almost seven years to your life," Peters said.

So, the next time you are having your teeth cleaned, ask your hygienist or dentist to demonstrate proper brushing and flossing techniques.

Your gums and teeth will appreciate your efforts.

Lisa A. Bankard, M.S., is wellness coordinator for Yampa Valley Medical Center and the Yampa Valley Health Plan.

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