*They say that pain is nature’s way of ringing us up to tell us something’s wrong. But when it comes to our gums, nature doesn’t always use the hotline. More often, the message of gum pain seems to come via the old-time pony express: By the time we get the news, the situation at the point of origin is likely to have gone from bad to worse. So if your gums are hinting that something unusual is going on, it may be an understatement.
But why do gums hurt? “The causes could be either serious infections caused by bacteria or a situation where the skin on the gums has something wrong with it,” says Kenneth Kornman, D.D.S., Ph.D., clinical professor and former chairman of the Department of Periodontics at the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio. There are many infectious conditions that can cause pain. And every now and then, gum surfaces can be plagued with a maddening host of abrasions, burns, growths and lesions.
But all these problems have one thing in common: If they persist, they can really gum up your life, so don’t take any chances when pain makes a rare cameo appearance. Head for the dentist’s chair as soon as possible. And meanwhile, take these steps to find some relief.
Brush away gum pain. Removing bacteria with regular tooth care not only prevents gum disease, it can also provide some short-term pain relief, says Dr. Kornman. Proceed with gentle brushing (with a soft brush), flossing and warm-water rinsing. In addition, an over-the-counter rinse like Listerine, diluted or at full strength, may diminish some of the bacteria and ease some pain. (For some people, though, the alcohol content of a rinse may make pain worse. Discontinue using it if that happens.)
Don’t rub. Massaging your gums may only cause further irritation, according to Dr. Kornman.
Try a warm saltwater rinse. “Take a few swings of warm salt water and swish it between your teeth and gums,” advises Leslie Salkin, D.D.S., director of postgraduate periodontics and professor of periodontology at the Temple University School of Dentistry in Philadelphia. “It has a general soothing effect. If you have an abscess, the salts will help draw it out and drain it.” He recommends one teaspoon of salt in a glass of lukewarm water. (Salt water is also your first line of defense for any gum burn, cut, abrasion or wound.)
Suppress the pain with an analgesic. Any over-the-counter medicine that reduces pain and inflammation could do wonders for your sore gums. It can also help reduce a fever if your pain is caused by an infection. “We’re finding that in most cases of dental disease, it is inflammation that causes discomfort,” says Samuel Low, D.D.S., associate professor and director of graduate periodontology at the University of Florida College of Dentistry in Gainesville. “Consequently we are recommending anti-inflammatory products such as ibuprofen (Advil).” Or you can take aspirin if you don’t have adverse reactions to it (but children should avoid aspirin because of the risk of Reye’s syndrome).
Don’t put aspirin on your gums. “For some reason, many people have the idea that applying aspirin directly to the affected gum area is beneficial,” says Kenneth H. Burrell,D.D.S., director of the American Dental Association’s Council on Dental Therapeutics in Chicago. That couldn’t be farther from the truth, he notes. “Unfortunately, the only thing that happens is that you create a chemical burn in the gum tissue. Don’t ever try it.”
Ice it down. For an all-natural anti-inflammatory, Dr. Low recommends ice. “It really works on swelling,” he says, “and also serves as a local anesthetic to dull nerve endings.” Apply an ice pack wrapped in a towel to your cheek or lip near the area of pain.
Moisten your mouth. Dr. Salkin recommends sucking on ice chips or a lemon drop if you are suffering from gum irritation due to dry mouth. That should be enough to replenish any missing saliva.
Use peroxide power. Many of the bacteria that cause gum pain cannot survive in oxygen, so some dentists recommend the use of everyday hydrogen peroxide, which you can pick up at any pharmacy and dilute. Dr. Low advises using a rinse of half water, half hydrogen peroxide.
Dab with baking soda. Another way to discourage bacteria is with house-hold baking soda. Just make a paste of baking soda mixed with water and apply it gently on the gums, suggests Dr. Low. But be careful. Overzealous use can abrade gum tissue.
Numb that gum. If you have a burn, a cut, an ulceration or any problem on the skin of the gum, Dr. Kornman says the best thing you can do is apply one of many over-the-counter gels or ointments that contain benzocaine. It’s numbing action delivers instant relief. It also knocks out much of the pain associated with serious gum infections.
Anyone for tea? Some doctors suggest holding a wet tea bag against a gum abrasion or canker sore. Tea leaves contain tannic acid, an astringent that also has some pain-relieving power.
Say no to tobacco. “We see greater gum destruction in smokers,” warns Dr. Salkin. He points out that smoking contributes to gum problems and can exacerbate ay infectious or ulcerative conditions. Chewing tobacco is another gum irritant and can lead to a variety of gum cancers, according to Dr. Salkin. In addition, smoking often contributes to the onset trench mouth and worsens the condition if you already have it.*
The Doctors Book of Home Remedies II By:Sid Kirchheimer and the Editors of PREVENTION Magazine Health Books 1993