4 Things Radiation Patients Need to Know About Periodontitis

Radiation therapy is a common treatment method for cancers of the head or neck, but it can lead to many complications inside your mouth. One of these potential complications is periodontitis, a severe form of gum disease. Here are four things that radiation patients need to know about periodontitis.

How does radiation cause periodontitis?

Periodontitis is primarily caused by plaque. If you don't remove this plaque by brushing or flossing, it will harden and turn into calculus. Calculus is too hard to be removed with your toothbrush or floss, so it will remain in place until a dental hygienist scrapes it off. This calculus is full of bacteria and will irritate your gum line, eventually leading to inflammation and infection.

Periodontitis can happen to anyone, but radiation causes changes that make your gums more susceptible to this infection. Radiation decreases the blood flow to your gum tissue and also damages the cells that make up your gum tissue. These two changes make it harder for your gums to heal from minor irritation and increases your risk of developing periodontitis.

What are the signs of periodontitis?

There are many signs that may indicate that you have periodontitis. You may notice that your gums are red, swollen, and sore. Your gums will bleed in response to tooth brushing, flossing, or even eating. Your infected gums will pull away from your teeth, which will make your teeth look longer than they used to be. You may feel tooth sensitivity if the roots of your teeth are exposed as your gum line recedes.

You may notice that you have pus oozing out of your gums, and this pus may leave you with a bad taste in your mouth or bad breath. If you notice any changes in the look or feel of your gums, see your dentist right away.

Is this complication serious?

Periodontitis is a very serious complication. As the condition advances, and the tissues that support your teeth are destroyed by the infection, your teeth will become loose, may shift positions in your mouth, or may fall out. The risk of tooth loss is not small: the most common cause of tooth loss in adults is periodontitis.

How is it treated?

The main treatment for periodontitis is a deep cleaning known as scaling and root planing. Some people find this procedure uncomfortable, so your dentist will use injections of local anesthesia to numb your gum tissue before the cleaning starts.

Usually, four appointments are necessary for this treatment. During each appointment, your dentist will clean one-quarter of your mouth. First, your dentist will use ultrasonic scalers (powered cleaning tools) to remove plaque and calculus from the crowns of your teeth. Next, your dentist will use a scaler, a hand instrument, to scrape away any plaque or calculus that was missed by the ultrasonic scaler. This completes the scaling portion of the treatment.

The next step is the root planing portion of the treatment. Your dentist will use scaler to scrape plaque and calculus from the roots of your teeth. They can't see the roots, so they need to rely on sense of touch to complete this portion. Once the roots are clean, they will be smoothed to make it harder for plaque to accumulate there in the future.

Your gums may be sensitive for two or three days after each cleaning appointment. Your dentist may tell you to use an antiseptic mouth rinse to keep bacteria under control while your gums heal.

If you are undergoing radiation treatment, stay alert for signs of periodontitis. If you notice any changes in your gum tissue, see your dentist right away for more info.