Gingivitis, or gum disease, can lead to serious complications if ignored, but treatment and prevention is straightforward. Dan Parton reports.

In this article:

  • What is gingivitis?
  • Symptoms
  • Treatment and prevention

What is gingivitis?

Gingivitis, which is more commonly known as gum disease, is a condition where the gums become inflamed, swollen and red.

The main cause of gingivitis is poor dental health. If plaque, a substance made up of bacteria, is allowed to build up on or around teeth – where it can harden and become tartar - the bacteria will start to release toxins that can irritate gums, making them painful.

It is estimated that ½ the UK adult population has gingivitis and most people will experience it at least once in their lives. People who smoke, have diabetes or a weakened immune system are at greater risk of developing gingivitis, however.

If left untreated, gingivitis can lead to:

  • Receding gums
  • Infections or abscesses
  • Chronic periodontitis – formerly known as pyorrhoea – which can lead to teeth becoming loose or falling out
  • Acute necrotising ulcerative gingivitis – or trench mouth - where ulcers develop on the gums after they become infected. Gums also become swollen, making it difficult to eat or drink. However, this is rare and only affects people with weakened immune systems or those who are malnourished


The most common symptom of gingivitis is bleeding gums when teeth are being brushed. Healthy gums should be pink, firm and not bleed when they are touched or brushed. Other common symptoms include gums becoming tender and painful and/or swollen and red or bad breath.

Gingivitis can usually be diagnosed from the symptoms alone. More serious conditions such as periodonitis may require specialist examination by a dentist.

Treatment and prevention

Treatment for gingivitis is relatively straightforward. It often requires a visit to the dentist for professional teeth cleaning – usually known as a ‘scale and polish’. This involves plaque and tartar being scraped away from teeth with a special instrument, before they are polished to remove any blemishes and stains.

In addition, sufferers may be prescribed an antiseptic mouthwash spray or gel, which usually has to be used for one month. The most commonly prescribed mouthwashes are chlorhexidine and hexetidine.

To prevent gingivitis developing good oral hygiene should be practiced, to ensure plaque and tartar cannot build up in sufficient quantities to cause problems. This includes:

  • Brushing teeth twice a day – morning and night – and using a fluoride toothpaste
  • Flossing daily
  • Using anti-bacterial mouthwash
  • Not smoking
  • Visiting the dentist regularly – at least once a year

In addition, eating a healthy diet and keeping stress under control can also help to prevent gingivitis developing.