What's the Difference Between Gum Disease & Gingivitis?

Dr. Kyle Hornby

Hi! My name is Kyle Hornby and I'm a Dentist in Kitchener, Ontario. A few times each and every week, I sit down at my computer to write blog articles that help my patients navigate the fascinating topic of Oral Health. Today, I'd like to answer a common patient question: "What's the difference between gum disease and gingivitis?".

"Aren't Gingivitis and Gum Disease the same thing?". I get this from patients at least once a month and it's a really great question. Answering it allows me to emphasize the importance of stellar oral hygiene while providing them with some basics about 2 common oral health problems.

So, let's get into what happens in your mouth in each situation and then I'll talk about the source of each problem. From there, I'll discuss the simple things you can do to avoid both oral health problems.

What is Gingivitis?

So, I'll start with the less serious problem which is Gingivitis. Gingivitis, by definition, is a reversible inflammation of your Gingiva or "Gums".

What Causes Gingivitis?

Most commonly, Gingivitis occurs because of plaque and tartar buildup due to inadequate oral hygiene. People who experience gingivitis typically admit that they don't floss often or at all. This leads to puffy red gums that may bleed often. Luckily, Gingivitis can be reversed within 10-14 days if a person starts flossing daily!

The other good news is that Gingivitis is reversible! Once you get rid of Gingivitis, there's no damage left behind.

What is Gum Disease?

Gum Disease is a more serious oral health problem compared to gingivitis. Gum disease (also known as Periodontitis) involves an irreversible loss of gums, bone and connective tissue from around your teeth.

People who experience gum disease may also find their gums are puffy and bleed but the key is that the tissues surrounding their teeth are being continuously destroyed.

What Causes Gum Disease?

Well, Gum Disease is (in most cases) the outcome of your immune system battling high levels of harmful bacteria around your gums. The substances that your immune cells produce to destroy bacteria, also cause unwanted destruction of gums and bone.

People with gum disease lose gum attachment to their teeth. They may notice gum recession or, if their gums lose attachment but maintain their original height, they will have deep crevices or gum pockets surrounding their teeth.

The loss of gum-to-tooth attachment that occurs with gum disease makes it harder for you to adequately clean your teeth. For this reason, gum disease often progresses as a vicious cycle because it makes inadequately maintained teeth harder to clean.

How to Prevent Gum Disease and Gingivitis

Gum disease and Gingivitis are often different responses to the same or similar factors: bacteria and other contaminants. Some people develop Gingivitis first and then develop Gum Disease from there while others develop Gingivitis but it never progresses to Gum Disease.

One likely explanation for this variability is based on differences in everyone's immune system. Those who mount a more aggressive and destructive response to high levels of harmful mouth bacteria will likely suffer gum and bone destruction, the hallmarks of Gum Disease. Other's might mount a more mild response to the same bacteria and plaque buildup and this will take the shape of simple gum inflammation or Gingivitis (that is, they never develop Gum Disease).

Given that the same things trigger both Gingivitis and Gum Disease, you can prevent both using the same approach: plaque control.

You'll want to brush twice daily, each time taking 3-4 minutes to gently but thoroughly clean your teeth. You'll also want to floss 1-2 times each day.

Now, the most important thing you can remember is that nighttime brushing and flossing (before bed) is absolutely critical to great oral health.

Why, you ask?

Well, during sleep (6-10 hours for many of us adults) a clean mouth allows for rebound and regeneration. Namely, your enamel remineralizes using calcium and phosphorus in your saliva. Your gums rebound and regenerate during this time, too!

If you forget to brush and floss before bedtime, then the opposite occurs: tooth demineralization and decay and gum irritation and inflammation builds.

To control the bacteria that cause Gingivitis and Gum Disease, you may want to try chewing Dental Probiotic Gums. These are commonly available at health food stores. They keep harmful, pro-decay, pro-inflammatory bacteria from thriving by encouraging the growth of beneficial, protective bacterial strains. These probiotics have been shown to reduce tooth decay and Gum Disease.

Preventing Gum Disease: What About Mouth Rinse?

This is a really great question that I get from many of my patients: "Won't mouthwash help?".

The answer, in short, is that it depends.

There are lots of options for mouthwashes out there but most people are familiar with the more harmful ones. The big brand mouth rinses contain ingredients that dry out your mouth (that's right, even the non-alcohol varieties do this) and are harmful to both good and bad bacteria. They tell you how effective they are at eliminating harmful bacteria but it's important to remember that these products are just as harmful to the helpful stuff contained in our mouth's ecosystem.

So, what can you do?

Well, if you're interested in looking at a mouth rinse as an adjunct to brushing and flossing, consider something like this mouth rinse from Risewell. There are lots of other, equally healthy, options out there and it might help to start looking at what's offered at your local health food or wellness store.


Gingivitis and Gum Disease are two very different things with different outcomes. While Gingivitis is reversible, Gum Disease is not and leaves long-lasting effects in its wake. The contributing factors are similar for both: bacterial plaque left on teeth and around the gum line. Thus, the same reliable approach of brushing at least twice and flossing at least once daily can help to prevent both conditions.

Other adjuncts can be added to your home care routine including beneficial mouth rinses, and probiotic chewing gums. These can help to re-balance the bacterial ecosystem in your mouth in favour of the good stuff! That is, they can promote the growth of beneficial bacteria which helps to limit the harmful effects of the more harmful forms.

Thanks for reading today's article. Next week, I'll tackle more great oral health topics so please check in!

By Dr. Kyle Hornby, Kitchener, Ontario Dentist

Our Dentist Office is located in Downtown Kitchener. We are a short drive away for families in Waterloo, Breslau & St. Jacobs. Our central location means we truly offer family dentistry near you!

This article is not intended to be a substitute for professional advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Accordingly, always seek the advice of your Dentist or other healthcare providers regarding a dental condition or treatment.

Enjoy a fresh start.
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