The warning signs of periodontitis (gum disease) are usually fairly straightforward. They include symptoms of bleeding gums, swollen gingiva, gum recession, tartar buildup, bad breath, and even tooth mobility. Catching the infection early enough can mean the difference in saving your smile.
But for people who smoke, vape, or use tobacco products, catching the warning signs may not be as easy. In fact, smoking can actually cover up the symptoms of periodontal disease, allowing it to advance into more aggressive stages before the individual realizes something is wrong.
In a nutshell, tobacco users tend to have less blood flow to their mouths. Our oral cavity is highly vascular. A tiny cut or bump to the mouth can result in fairly obvious bleeding. That’s why infected gums bleed so easily when they’re bumped into with floss or a toothbrush. But when you smoke, all of those blood vessels start to shrink and atrophy. They’re not able to provide the oxygen and nutrients to your gum tissues that you need for your body to heal.
Essentially, your gums can become highly infected but on the outside, they look completely healthy. There may not be any swelling or bleeding, and the gingiva aren’t even red.
If you’re someone who smokes, vapes, or uses any type of tobacco product, it’s important to get regular screenings for gum disease even if your gums look healthy. You may never see signs of infection on your own until the disease is in an aggressive state. At that point the gums will usually start receding and your teeth will start feeling loose.
Your gum screening will need to consist of a set of digital bitewing X-rays (to check the bone levels between your teeth) and a periodontal evaluation where the connective tissue is measured around each tooth. We call the latter process “probing” and it involves a small ruler sliding just under your gums, recording the depth at six different points on every individual tooth.
In smokers, the probing depths will truly reveal if there’s any type of gum infection going on. Pockets deeper than 3mm are considered atypical and unhealthy, and may require anything from a special cleaning to laser gum therapy with our periodontist in The Woodlands. Treatment protocols are standard between smokers and non-smokers, but we do encourage a smoking cessation plan. Giving up tobacco products makes it easier for your body to repair itself and see a better improvement from periodontal therapy.
Someone with a relatively healthy mouth may only need a periodontal exam about once per year. If there are a few trouble spots, they can be checked at each six-month exam. People who are at a higher risk of periodontal disease — including smokers — may need to have their gums assessed as often as 2-3 times per year.
Our gum specialist in The Woodlands offers state-of-the-art resources to assist you on treating gum disease while smoking. For tips on soft tissue therapy and tobacco cessation options, call us today!