While often overlooked, gums are vital to your dental health. They hold your teeth in place and protect the delicate root underneath from bacteria and deterioration from eating, chewing, and brushing. Failing to brush and floss — or doing so incorrectly — can cause the gums to recede.
What are receding gums?
When gums pull away from the teeth, they’re said to be “receding.” As this occurs, it causes gaps to form between the teeth and gums and reveals the pink tissue and tooth roots underneath1. This makes it easier for plaque to build up and increases the risk for cavities, particularly because the roots are not covered with protective enamel2. If it isn’t treated, it can result in tooth loss.
What causes receding gums?
Gum recession is often a sign of periodontal (gum) disease, which 47.2% of American adults over age 30 have3. Gum disease is often due to poor dental hygiene (i.e., not brushing and flossing frequently enough), which allows bacteria-laden plaque to build up. If not removed, plaque hardens into tartar that can only be removed by a dentist4. Bacteria can also cause inflammation and infection that destroys gum tissue and leads to gum recession5. Other risk factors for gum disease include smoking, diabetes, hormonal changes, and genetics6.
Issues beyond gum disease can cause your gums to recede, too. Some people naturally have thin gum tissue, which makes recession more likely as they age6. Even if you otherwise take good care of your dental health, brushing your teeth too hard also wears away enamel and irritates the gums, which can lead to recession. Another common cause is tooth grinding (bruxism). It places excess pressure on your teeth, potentially damaging enamel and resulting in gum recession1.
How can you tell if your gums are receding?
In the early stages of gum disease, you may not notice any symptoms. However, as the gums continue to recede and expose more of the tooth root, you can experience sensitivity to hot and cold foods or drinks5. You may also notice gum swelling and redness or experience bleeding while you brush and floss6.
As the gums continue to recede, your tooth may appear longer or uneven in color — the latter occurs because the crown (the visible part of the tooth above the gumline) is slightly different in appearance than the root (the part of the tooth below the gumline)7.
Other symptoms of receding gums can include6:
- Gum tenderness or pain
- Bad breath
- Loose teeth
What can you do about receding gums?
If your gums are receding, your dentist can perform a deep cleaning. They’ll scrape away any built-up plaque and tartar with special tools and then smooth the area around the tooth root to prevent bacteria from entering. This process is called scaling and root planing2. Your dentist may also prescribe antibiotics if the gums are infected. If the gums have receded significantly and bone loss has occurred, surgery may be necessary6.
Preventative dental care is the most effective way to maintain healthy gums and avoid serious procedures. Brush your teeth twice per day and floss once every day, making sure to use gentle pressure during both tasks. Additionally, visit your dentist twice a year for routine cleanings. If you grind your teeth, talk to your dentist about getting fitted with a mouthguard to wear while you sleep.