The ability to speak, smile, smell, taste, chew, swallow and convey our feelings and emotions through facial expressions is an essential part of everyday life, but is easily taken for granted. These activities are dependent on having good oral health; however, oral diseases cause pain, impaired function and disability for millions of Americans. One oral disease that is frequently overlooked is gum disease. If you think gum disease only happens to older people, think again! According to the American Dental Association, it only takes 24 hours for enough bacteria to form in the mouth to start causing gum disease.

Exactly what is gum disease? It is an inflammation of the tissues and bone that support the teeth. It is caused by a buildup of plaque, an invisible sticky layer that forms on the teeth and gums. Plaque contains bacteria, which produce toxins that irritate and damage the gums. If plaque isn't removed by daily dental care, over time it will harden into a crust called calculus (or sometimes tartar). Initially, the plaque and calculus cause irritation of the gums. This is referred to as gingivitis. Over time, if not addressed, the gingivitis can progress until the gums detach themselves from the teeth, forming pockets. The body's attempts to fight off the bacteria also cause the bone that surrounds and supports the teeth to be lost. The irritation has now become gum disease, called periodontitis. Untreated gum disease can cause problems ranging from the embarrassing, like bad breath, to the very serious and painful, like loose teeth that may fall out. Gum disease may also be related to damage elsewhere in the body. Recent studies indicate associations between oral infections and type 2 diabetes, heart disease, stroke and lung infections.

What makes a person more likely to develop gum disease? Some people inherit an overactive immune cell tendency from their parents that makes them more susceptible. Despite genetic contribution, your behavior and environment can also significantly contribute to gum disease. Poor diet, not enough sleep and too much stress leave your body vulnerable to infection, including your gums. A poor diet that is low in vitamin C, calcium, vitamin D or magnesium can compromise gum tissue's ability to heal and can speed up bone loss. Some medical conditions, including diabetes, and certain medicines increase the risk of gum disease. Girls have a higher risk of gingivitis due to female sex hormones that can make gums more sensitive to irritation. However, the most serious culprit is tobacco. According to the American Dental Association, people who use tobacco have more plaque and tartar buildup and are three times more likely to have gum disease than people who have never smoked. If you do not use tobacco, don't start! If you smoke or chew, let 2015 be the year you choose to quit!

How do you know if you have gum disease? Gum disease can be sneaky, causing little or no pain or irritation before damage is done. Do your gums bleed when you floss or brush your teeth? This is usually a sign of gingivitis, the mildest form of gum disease. Other warning signs include gums that are red, swollen or tender, gums pulling away from teeth, bad breath that won't go away, painful chewing and loose teeth. If you are a Soldier, it is especially important for you to take good care of your teeth and mouth. Dental care may not be readily available when you are in the field or deployed, and a problem that seems small can escalate into a major health issue. To reduce the risk of gum disease, follow these recommendations:

• Brush twice a day for at least two minutes each time with fluoride toothpaste, floss daily.
• Use a toothbrush with soft bristle brush and replace your toothbrush every three to four months. Eat a healthy diet that includes foods rich in vitamin C, calcium and vitamin D. Avoid in-between-meal snacks and junk foods with sugar and starch that plaque-causing bacteria love to feed on.
• Don't smoke or use smokeless tobacco!
• Visit your dentist at least annually for check-ups.
• Get your teeth cleaned once or twice a year to remove plaque and stubborn calculus that you might not be removing properly with your daily brushing or flossing.

Fortunately, gum disease is preventable. Take care of your teeth and your children's teeth, to keep gum disease at bay for you and your family!