Get to know your gums, that flesh surrounding and holding your teeth in place inside of your mouth. Healthy, well-cared-for gums appear pink and firm. But there's more to your gums than you might think.

If you take your gums for granted, though, they may stop doing their important jobs. Healthy, well-cared-for gums don't bleed, hurt or feel sensitive when you brush and floss, and they can support your teeth as you age. Unhealthy gums may recede away from the teeth and cause teeth to loosen and become more and more sensitive to heat and cold. Pus may ooze from the gums and teeth can eventually fall out.

Periodontal or gum disease in its earliest stages is called gingivitis, and you'll notice it if your gums are red, swollen, or if they bleed when you brush or floss. But gingivitis is just one of the potential problems your gums may warn of. Your gums may flap other flags...

Do your gums look receded? There are many causes, including genetics, poor oral hygiene, and aggressive teeth brushing. Brushing your teeth isn't a "no pain, no gain" thing. Protect your gums by holding your toothbrush so the bristles point at your gum line at about a 45-degree angle and brush with short, gentle back-and-forth or circular strokes.

Do your gums bleed easily? Gums that bleed regularly when brushed or flossed usually indicate gingivitis or gum disease as a result of plaque build-up. Brush your teeth with a soft bristle toothbrush at least twice a day and remember to floss daily as well. Visit your dentist for regular cleaning and check-up.

Do you notice swelling on your gums? If you spot swelling, or sometimes a lump or boil, on the gums that is accompanied by a throbbing pain, it's most likely an abscess. A gum abscess can form on the gums if food debris gets lodged beneath the gums. You might not even know it or you might not floss properly and miss it. An abscess can also be blamed on decay or gum disease.

Do you notice a change in the colour of your gums? As mentioned above, healthy gums should appear pink and firm. Changes in the colour of your gums may indicate:

  • Bacterial infection: If you're a smoker or have a weakened immune system, or are really stressed, and your gums appear red with a gray film over them, you might have a bacterial infection called necrotizing ulcerative gingivitis (NUG, also known as "trench mouth"). NUG may be accompanied by swelling, pain, bad breath, ulcer-like sores on the gums, sore throat, and fever.
  • Viral infection: Gums that are bright red and marked by small white or yellow sores in the mouth may be caused by the herpes virus.
  • Fungal infection: Gums can become red and irritated by an overgrowth of fungus, as in thrush (candidiasis), an infection that can sometimes be spotted by the white film that it creates on the tongue and in the corners of the mouth.
  • Cancer: A brown spot or darkly discoloured spot on the gums may be melanoma, a type of skin cancer.

If you are concerned about any changes you notice in the appearance or feeling of your gums, don't wait for your next check-up. Contact your dentist for an appointment.