Any structure needs a firm foundation, and no building will stand indefinitely on ground that is eroding away. Such is the case with our teeth and gums. While teeth get a lot of cosmetic attention, it’s the gums that play a critical role in ensuring those beautiful pearly whites stay where they belong.

Gum disease is common, and when left unchecked will cause the gums to recede and become infected. In the worst cases, tooth loss can be the outcome.

“Gum disease and cavities in the teeth are both serious dental concerns. Patients may view cavities as more troublesome due to pain, whereas in early stages of gum disease, the infection may not be painful,” says Dr. Samson Liu of Heartland Dental Care and My Wildwood Dentist.

Although it can be painless at first, gum disease may be linked to heart disease, according to the American Academy of Periodontology. Inflammation present in the gums may indicate more systemic inflammatory disease, including inflammation of the cardiovascular system. Another theory states that “oral bacteria from periodontal (gum) disease may enter the bloodstream, attach to fatty plaques in the coronary arteries and contribute to clot formation.”

Despite these serious concerns, Liu notes that gum disease is one of the most common chronic infections in adults, and significant damage can be done before the individual has any idea that the gums are compromised. “Many patients think it is OK for their gums to bleed, which can be the first sign of serious infection,” he notes. Symptoms of gum disease, in addition to bleeding gums, include receding gums, loose teeth, pain, persistent bad breath and a change in the way your teeth come together when you bite.

Cosmetic concerns extend to the effects gum disease can have on the ability to make orthodontic corrections. “The surrounding tissues must be healthy for accurate placement of orthodontic appliances,” explains Dr. Robert Shapiro, an orthodontist with Orthodontic Specialists of St. Louis.

During orthodontic treatment, swollen bleeding gums make simple adjustment procedures more complicated and can also make placement of rubber bands by the patient more difficult. Shapiro adds that when the gums are swollen and engorged with blood, they can encroach upon—and in some cases even cover—some of the orthodontic appliances, which further complicates and slows the progression of treatment.

“All patients with active gum disease are referred back to their general dentist for treatment,” Shapiro says. “Once the problem is under control, orthodontic treatment can begin with close monitoring.”

The obvious first line of defense against gum disease is proper brushing and daily flossing to remove plaque, along with semiannual visits to the dentist for professional cleaning and evaluation. A healthy diet rich in fruits and vegetables and with only small amounts of sugary snacks and drinks also is helpful.

Treatment includes the use of ultrasonics and instruments to remove the bacteria causing the infection. Locally applied antibiotics also are placed for the best healing possible.

“One’s oral health is extremely important, not only to the health of your teeth but to the overall health of your body,” Liu says.