Periodontal disease is caused by bacteria in dental plaque. Plaque is the sticky substance that forms on your teeth soon after you have brushed. In an effort to get rid of the bacteria, the cells of your immune system release substances that inflame and damage the gums, periodontal ligament or alveolar bone. This leads to swollen, bleeding gums, a sign of gingivitis (the earliest stage of periodontal disease). Damage from periodontal disease also can cause teeth to become loose. This is a sign of severe periodontitis (the advanced stage of disease).
You can prevent periodontal disease by practicing good oral hygiene and visiting your dentist regularly. Most people should see the dentist about once every six months. But if you already have gum disease you may need to visit more often.
Daily brushing and flossing, when done correctly, can help to remove most of the plaque from your teeth. Professional cleanings by your dentist or dental hygienist will keep plaque under control in places that are harder for a toothbrush or floss to reach.
If oral hygiene slips or you skip dental visits, plaque builds up on the teeth. Eventually, it spreads below the gum line. The bacteria are protected there because your toothbrush can't reach them. If plaque is not removed, the bacteria will continue to multiply. Your gum inflammation may get worse.
The buildup of plaque below the gumline causes the gums to become inflamed. As the gums swell, they detach from the tooth. This process forms a space, or "pocket," between the tooth and gum. Bacteria can grow rapidly in the pockets. This encourages further plaque buildup.
If left untreated, periodontal disease may destroy the periodontal ligament and the alveolar bone, the structures that support your teeth.
Another reason to remove plaque promptly is that over time it becomes hardened or calcified and turns into calculus. This is commonly called tartar. Even more plaque attaches to calculus because it's a rougher surface than tooth enamel. It's also rougher than cementum, a layer that covers the tooth root. Calculus and plaque build up in layers.
Using a tartar-control toothpaste may help slow the build-up of calculus around your teeth. It can't affect the tartar that already has formed below the gum line, however.