As a mom of three, I’m diligent in teaching my kids the social skill of sharing, partly to establish essential manners and partly to avoid any phone calls home about bad behavior.
This is an impressionable behavior, so fundamental it can be hard, even for adults, to know when to draw the line. If you’re like most people, the idea of sharing a meal or letting your kids have a sip of your drink is no big deal.
But as training director at the Institute for Advanced Laser Dentistry, I know better. The fact is: gum disease is contagious. And gum disease is not to be taken lightly. Gum disease has also been linked to heart disease, stroke, certain cancers, pre-term birth, and stillborn deaths.
Scary, I know. You would never knowingly give your child a disease. But the problem is, even though an estimated 85% of American adults are affected by gum disease, most people don’t realize that they even have it. More times than not, there is no pain until the disease has become very severe.
What’s worse, gum disease can spread through normal, everyday family activities like:
- Sharing silverware
- Drinking from the same cup
Families do this on a daily basis. We share. We sample. We pass germs freely across the family unit. We often don’t realize that this could mean passing onto our kids gum disease or other oral pathogens. But here’s the reality: “cooties” DO exist.
And as a dentist, I’m acutely aware of the damage gum disease can do.
Who’s at Risk?
Even though gum disease is contagious and the bacteria that cause gum disease are present in your mouth and saliva, researchers have found that these particular oral bacteria are only contagious when exposure has occurred over a long period of time. You would have to continually share saliva with someone who has gum disease over a long period of time for it to be spread this way.
There is also evidence that oral bacteria is only transmittable after a certain age, when hormones are such that bacteria can grow and multiply in your mouth, creating an environment suited to host the disease. This is usually by puberty, meaning it’s okay to share with younger kids, but it’s important to remember that habits we develop in childhood carry over through teenage and adulthood.
Since gum disease often goes unnoticed, it’s important to understand the warning signs:
- Puffy or red bleeding gums
- Bad breath (rotten eggs / sulfur smell)
- Painful chewing
- Loose/sensitive teeth
- Receding gums
- Some of these symptoms might be so mild, you don’t even notice!
First Things First
Knowing that gum disease is communicable, how do you stop it spreading through the family?
Good dental health and diligent oral hygiene. Daily care is paramount, and not just of your own mouth, of your little ones as well (let’s face it; kids can’t be trusted to brush their own teeth adequately for at least the first 7 years of life). And, of course, you should take your children to visit the dentist twice a year. Make a trip to the dentist a fun and scheduled family routine. This is a great way to reinforce the importance of oral health since all members of the family will participate together. Children will enjoy the time, knowing their parents will be right beside them. If you have any concerns about gum disease for yourself or your little ones, ask your dentist for a gum probing, this will assess the health of your teeth and gums.
Gum Disease is Treatable in Every Patient
Now that you understand that gum disease is contagious and that there can be serious ramifications of sharing, it’s also important to realize that gum disease is very treatable. Once gum disease has been confirmed by your dentist, the next and most critical step is treatment. There are three accepted methods for treatment of gum disease:
- The LANAP® protocol using lasers: The most advanced, and arguably most doctor- and patient-friendly, is laser surgery called the LANAP protocol. This procedure works for mild, moderate and severe gum disease. This is what I offer in my practice with very good results. This laser’s light has the unique ability to kill bad bacteria and create a clean, bacteria-free environment for regeneration so the body can rebuild itself. It is less painful and offers faster recovery since the gum tissue is not cut or removed.
- Root Planing & Scaling: Often called a deep cleaning, this is often suggested when gum disease is in its mildest form, called gingivitis. The goal of a deep cleaning is to stop the infection before it progresses to mild or severe periodontitis.
- Traditional Surgery: Regular or traditional periodontal surgery is suggested when gum disease is severe – when many more germs are present. This surgery involves the use of a scalpel to cut and “push back” the gums to take away the diseased gum tissues. Your dentist (or a specialist called a periodontist) will then clean the root of the tooth, attempting to scrape away the bacteria that cause gum disease, then stitch the gums back together. Many patients complain that this surgery is very painful and requires several days of downtime, both when the surgery occurs and later to remove stitches.
Stop the Bacteria = Share Again
If you suspect you or your family is part of the large group of Americans affected by gum disease – go see your dentist. It’s really that easy. Regular checkups and good oral hygiene are a good start. And if you do find that you have gum disease and seek treatment, bringing your mouth to optimum oral health will ensure you won’t pass “cooties” to your most precious commodities: your children.
Dr. Dawn M. Gregg, DDS, is a mother of two boys and one girl and graduate with honors from UCLA School of Dentistry. She is a fourth generation dentist after her father, grandfather, and great-grandfather, each of whom practiced in Southern California and one of 7 dental professionals in her family (so far). She completed advanced Post-Doctorate training at the Texas Institute for Advanced Dental Studies, and the Dental Organization for Conscious Sedation, and Training Director at the Institute for Advanced Laser Dentistry. Dr. Bloore-Nicholson can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.