Every few weeks, I get some uncomfortable sensations in my mouth. My teeth feel achy and loose. My gums are swollen and sensitive. And I have a desire to brush my teeth every couple of hours. These symptoms go away after a few days, but until then nothing seems to help.
The last time this happened, I finally consulted Dr. Google and came upon a condition called menstruation gingivitis—an inflammation of the gums that typically begins just before a woman's period and goes away once her period starts.
The symptoms matched mine, and after glancing at the calendar, I realized the timing made perfect sense. Mystery solved!
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In search of more info, I called ob-gyn Mary Rosser, MD, PhD, at Montefiore Health System in New York City, who explained that women are more susceptible to gingivitis thanks to natural fluctuations in our hormone levels.
"A surge in the female hormones estrogen and progesterone causes an increase in blood flow to the gums, and a decrease in the way that we can fight off plaque and other toxins," says Dr. Rosser. Plaque build-up irritates the gums, which become tender, swollen, and red, and some women see blood while they're flossing or brushing their teeth. They may also develop sores on the insides of their cheeks. These symptoms tend to strike before menstruation and during pregnancy.
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There are a few other times in a woman's life when she might develop periodontal problems due to changing hormones: during puberty, after menopause, and if she takes oral contraceptives (especially progesterone-only pills), says Dr. Rosser.
While the hormonal changes don't cause gum disease, they can exacerbate any symptoms that you already have. That's why Dr. Rosser stresses the importance of maintaining good dental hygiene year-round, and visiting your dentist every six months. Damage from gingivitis can be reversed if you're diligent about those biannual appointments and the proper at-home cleaning routine—that means brushing, flossing, and rinsing with mouthwash twice a day.
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If your gums start to bleed when you floss before your period or during pregnancy, it may be tempting to quit this healthy habit. Don't, Dr. Rosser cautions. Flossing will help lower your risk of developing more serious periodontal disease down the road.
Another tip: Consider cutting back on sugar and carbohydrates, she suggests. That may help ease the inflammation. But if at any point you notice that your symptoms are worse than usual, it's worth scheduling a visit with your dentist to get checked out, says Dr. Rosser.