Why are my gums itchy? If you've been asking yourself this question, you probably want answers — and fast. Could it be hormones, anxiety or even COVID-19?
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"Itchy gums are a common problem. They're typically a sign that something is wrong, and the cause is usually plaque buildup and gum disease," says Kami Hoss, DDS, a San Diego-based dentist and author of If Your Mouth Could Talk.
But plaque and gum disease aren't the only culprits. Hormones, allergies, injuries and more can also factor in.
Here's how to figure out what's making your gums itch and how to find relief.
8 Causes of Itchy Gums
Itchy gums can happen when the gum tissue is inflamed or irritated. The irritation can stem from a number of causes, and seeing a dentist is the best way to figure out what's making your gums itch, Dr. Hoss says.
In the meantime, here are a few possibilities:
1. Too Much Plaque
Plaque is a colorless, sticky substance that can coat the teeth and gums. It forms when food and mucus combine with bacteria in your mouth and can build up when you skimp on flossing and brushing.
This can lead to itching, bleeding and sensitivity, explains Brad Eckhardt, DDS, a dentist in Greeley, Colorado.
Plaque may also accumulate when you have extra mucus, like when you have a cold or sinus infection. It's possible COVID-19 may trigger extra mucus that leads to mouth irritation, too, but itchy gums are not a common symptom of COVID, per the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
2. Gum Disease
Excess plaque buildup can eventually lead to gingivitis, a form of gum disease, Dr. Eckhardt notes.
Gingivitis can make gums itchy and sensitive and appear puffy and swollen. It can also cause bad breath along with bleeding while brushing or flossing, per the Mayo Clinic.
3. Dry Mouth
Your gums can feel itchy when you don't have enough saliva to keep your mouth moist, says Dr. Eckhardt. Dry mouth can have a number of possible causes, and not all of them are serious.
The problem becomes more common with age. Feeling anxious or stressed can also make your mouth dry, and so can medications used to treat high blood pressure, depression or bladder control issues, according to the National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research (NIDCR).
It can be a side effect of chemotherapy, radiation or nerve damage to the salivary glands as well.
4. Teeth Grinding or Other Mouth Injuries
Frequently grinding your teeth or sustaining another type of gum injury can lead to itching (as well as a headache or facial pain).
"Prolonged grinding of the teeth can open wounds and erode the enamel, which causes the gums to recede. This can cause itchy gums," Dr. Hoss says.
Other symptoms of teeth grinding include tooth pain, facial pain and headaches, especially when you wake up in the morning.
5. Hormonal Changes
It's not uncommon for gums to get itchy during pregnancy, before your period or during menopause.
"Surges in hormones can increase the blood flow to your gums and change the way the tissue reacts to plaque, causing itching," Dr. Hoss explains.
You might notice increased sensitivity or bleeding while brushing or flossing too. While the sensation can be annoying, it's normal and should ease up once your hormone levels even out.
6. Smoking or E-Cigarettes
Smoking and vaping aren't just bad for your lungs, they can also make your mouth uncomfortable.
Nicotine — a chemical that shows up in cigarettes and their electronic counterparts — contains irritants that cause gums to become inflamed, says Dr. Hoss. As a result, your gums might itch.
7. Improperly Placed Dental Device
Oral treatments like dental implants, bridges and dentures can cause itching when they don't fit well.
"Gaps between the dental devices and your gums will mean that food particles can easily sneak inside," Dr. Eckhardt explains. "The longer the food debris stays there, the more bacteria will be born from it and soon an infection might develop."
This can cause gums to become sensitive, inflamed and itchy.
8. Allergic Reaction
Eating, drinking or touching a substance you're allergic to can trigger itching and swelling on the skin as well as in your mouth, Dr. Hoss says. So if you have itchy gums after eating certain foods, allergies might be the culprit. (Some people even describe it as a tingling or burning in the mouth.)
Some people are also allergic to sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS), a chemical compound found in some toothpastes, according to DermNet NZ. If you have itchy gums after brushing, consider using an SLS-free toothpaste.
During an allergic reaction, you might also experience red or watery eyes, a runny nose or in severe cases, trouble breathing.
Some allergic reactions can trigger anaphylaxis, a life-threatening reaction marked by throat swelling, stomach pain, severe swelling, dizziness or confusion, per the Cleveland Clinic. If you are experiencing symptoms of anaphylaxis, call 911 immediately.
Treating Itchy, Irritated Gums
Just like treating a toothache, treatment for itchy gums involves addressing the underlying cause. That starts by seeing your dentist.
"It is critical that you identify the cause as soon as possible so you can receive the right treatment to stop the itch and keep the condition from getting worse," Dr. Eckhardt says.
Itching caused by plaque buildup or gum disease typically calls for scaling and root planing, Dr. Hoss advises. This involves removing plaque and smoothing the roots around your teeth to help the teeth reattach to the gums.
Teeth grinding or injuries can often be managed with mouth guards or night guards, while allergy-related itching is typically treating with antihistamines.
If you suspect your itchy gums are caused by dentures or another oral treatment, let your dentist know. They can improve the fit of the dentures or make other corrections to help you feel more comfortable.
Preventing Itchy Gums
Gum itching is common, but there are ways to steer clear. Number-one on the list? Good dental hygiene.
"The best way to prevent itchy gums caused by plaque buildup and gingivitis is to make sure you're regularly brushing, flossing and removing plaque from your teeth and gums," Dr. Hoss says.
For extra insurance, rinse with mouthwash to sweep away even more plaque.
If you notice your gums get itchy due to allergens, try to minimize your exposure. And if you smoke or vape, quit. "You'll greatly decrease your chances of getting itchy gums," Dr. Hoss says.
When to See a Dentist About Itchy Gums
Occasional gum itching that clears up quickly isn't cause for concern. But you should call your dentist if the itching sticks around for more than a week, Dr. Hoss recommends. They can examine your mouth to diagnose the problem and come up with a treatment plan to get rid of the itch.