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The term gingivitis refers to inflammation and infection of the gingival (gum) tissue around the teeth. It is caused by retention of bacterial plaque. The bacteria in plaque produce both the acids that cause tooth decay and the toxins that attack the supporting structures for the teeth, the gums and bone.
Gingivitis is more precisely defined as inflammation of the gingival tissue without loss of supporting bone, and is reversible. It is usually caused by bacterial plaque that accumulates in the small gaps between the gums and the teeth and by calculus (tartar) that forms on the teeth. These accumulations may be tiny, even microscopic, but the bacteria in them produce the toxins that cause inflammation of the gums around the teeth. This inflammation can, over the years, cause deepening pockets between the teeth and gums and loss of bone around teeth—the disease known as periodontitis or pyorrhea. Since it is the bone of the jaws that supports and retains the teeth, loss of bone from periodontitis can cause teeth over the years to become loose and eventually to fall out or need to be extracted because of loss of support.
Because gingivitis is preventable and reversible, early detection, professional cleanings and thorough home care (brushing and flossing) are the best ways to prevent its progression to the irreversible damage of periodontitis.