As we age our risk of health issues rises — we’re more likely to deal with problems like arthritis, heart disease, and falls. Another condition to add to that list? Gum disease.

“Periodontal disease in general is a disease we see more frequently in older people, in their 40s, 50s and beyond,” says Sally Cram, a periodontist based in Washington, DC, and a spokesperson for the American Dental Association (ADA). 

“Periodontal disease is a chronic, low-grade infection with inflammation of the gum and bone. It gets into the bloodstream.”
Dr. Sally Cram
Periodontist, and spokesperson for the American Dental Association

According to the ADA, chronic periodontitis affects almost half of adults over age 30 in the US.

You don’t want to let gum disease go untreated. With advanced periodontal disease, you could risk losing teeth and bone, and the condition can affect your overall health. “Periodontal disease is a chronic, low-grade infection with inflammation of the gum and bone. It gets into the bloodstream,” Dr. Cram says. It’s linked with heart attack, stroke, kidney problems, and other health issues.

To treat gum disease, your dentist may recommend deep dental cleanings, a procedure that can help remove the tartar and plaque that builds up below the gumline.

When you might need a deep dental cleaning

With gum disease, plaque can inflame your gums. The gums then pull away from your teeth, allowing the plaque to slide below the gumline where your toothbrush can’t reach. 

You may need a deep dental cleaning if you have signs and symptoms of gingivitis or periodontal disease:

  • Red, sore, or bleeding gums
  • Gum recession
  • Loose teeth
  • Sudden bad breath

What’s involved in a deep dental cleaning?

There are two parts to a deep dental cleaning—scaling, and root planing. “Scaling and root planning are the first line of defense to remove the bacteria under the gum line that’s causing periodontal disease,” Dr. Cram says.

Scaling removes the plaque and tartar that has collected underneath the gumline, and root planing smooths the tooth’s root so the gums can reattach to the tooth.

The process is typically done under a local anesthetic like Novocain, and generally broken up into two visits, treating half of the mouth each time. 

If you need a deep dental cleaning, don’t skip it—if your periodontal disease becomes advanced and causes bone loss, you might need surgery. 

Here’s how to avoid the need for a deep dental cleaning

You can prevent gingivitis and periodontal disease and avoid the need for a deep dental cleaning. “Probably 95 to 98% of dental disease, and periodontal disease in particular, is preventable,” Dr. Crum says. 

Key to prevention is better home care. You’ve had the recommendations drilled into your head since you were a kid—brush twice a day and floss once a day. If traditional brushing and flossing aren’t cutting it for you, there are different home care tools you can try.

“Dentists spend a considerable amount of time really working with patients to figure out what sorts of home care tools will work for them,” Dr. Cram says. 

Visiting your dentist periodically is also key. Regular cleanings can catch gum disease early and keep the plaque and tartar from spreading below the gumline.

“There could be something you can’t feel or see. The dentist can pick it up and get it corrected, rather than waiting until you need gum surgery or something more advanced,” Dr. Cram says.

Avoiding the need for a deep dental cleaning can save you money, too. A deep dental cleaning for your entire mouth could cost $560 to $1,200.

The link between gum disease and heart health

If you have gum disease, you have two to three times the risk of having a heart attack or stroke. Researchers haven’t established a direct connection, but many dentists think it’s a good reason to stay on top of gum disease.

“I tell my periodontal patients, ‘If you have a family history of heart attack or stroke you need to take this seriously.’ Sometimes that’s a good incentive for people to start doing what they need to do with home care,” Dr. Cram says.

If you’re at higher risk, your dentist might also recommend more frequent cleanings. “For the average person, once or twice a year might be fine, but if you have a history of gum disease your dentist might recommend cleanings every three to four months,” Dr. Cram says.

Take good care of your teeth and you shouldn’t need additional deep dental cleanings. “Once you go through scaling and root planing, you don’t want to repeat. The hope is that you do it once, then you’re stable and in good shape,” Dr. Cram says.