There's not much debate over what color your gums should be (a pretty pink, please). But if you're noticing a different hue, you might have some questions about what, exactly, is going on in your mouth.
Turns out, the tone or tint itself can tell you quite a bit, especially when you also pay attention to other symptoms you might be experiencing. Here, two dental experts run down the list of other colors you may run into — and what that could mean for your oral health.
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What Color Are Healthy Gums?
If you were guessing pink, you're right. "Healthy gums are typically pink in color and firm to the touch, not tender or swollen, for people of all races," says dentist Michael Wei, DDS, of Manhattan Cosmetic Dentist in New York City.
The shade of pink may depend on your skin tone. White- or light-skinned people will typically have lighter pink gums, while people with brown or black skin may have darker pink or pinkish-brown gums, he adds.
You can also tell that your gums are in good shape if they don't bleed when you brush or floss. Breath that generally feels fresh and no unpleasant tastes in your mouth are also signs that your oral health is where it should be.
Gums that are red and swollen are usually a sign of gingivitis, the earliest stage of gum disease caused by plaque buildup on the teeth, says Richard M. Lipari, DDS, a dentist with Lipari and Mangiameli Dentistry in Chappaqua, New York.
They might also bleed easily, like when you brush or floss.
These might be the only symptoms at first, so the condition can be easy to ignore, per the National Library of Medicine. But over time, the condition can lead to gum pain and tenderness, and eventually gum damage or tooth loss.
Gingivitis can usually be halted or reversed with a thorough dental cleaning and better oral hygiene habits, says the Cleveland Clinic. Think: brushing twice daily, flossing once a day and getting regular dental checkups.
As gingivitis progresses to periodontitis, the more advanced form of gum disease, gums can start to take on a dark purplish tone, Dr. Lipari says.
Your gums might also be puffy or painful, and you may start to notice pus between your gums and your teeth. Eating or chewing may also start to become uncomfortable, according to the Mayo Clinic.
Sometimes periodontitis can be treated similarly to gingivitis, with the addition of antibiotics to thwart the growth of unhealthy bacteria in the mouth.
More advanced cases might require surgery to repair damage to your gums or the bone underneath, the Mayo Clinic notes.
Very dark red, dark purple, black or black-spotted gums are most often a sign of severe periodontitis, Dr. Wei says.
In addition to the symptoms mentioned above, advanced gum disease can cause your teeth to loosen, which could lead to new spaces between your teeth or a change in your bite, the Mayo Clinic notes.
Less commonly, black gums could be from smoking or undermanaged diabetes, both of which can lead to gum tissue changes that can affect gum color, Dr. Wei says.
The antibiotic tetracycline can also temporarily cause gums to take on a black tint.
See your dentist if you have black gums. They can examine your gums to determine whether the problem is periodontitis or something else, and the best way to address it. Periodontitis is usually managed with a deep cleaning and antibiotics, or in some cases, surgery.
According to Dr. Wei, gums that appear paler than normal could be a sign of anemia, which occurs when the blood doesn't make enough red blood cells.
Often stemming from too-low levels of iron or vitamin B12, anemia can also cause pale skin, weakness or fatigue, dizziness, shortness of breath, headaches and an irregular heartbeat.
Start by seeing your doctor to confirm your anemia and determine the underlying cause. Often, cases caused by low iron or vitamin B12 can be managed by taking supplements, per the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute.
Noticing that your gums are a ghostly white can be alarming, but the problem usually isn't cause for major concern.
"Gums can turn white temporarily from excess use of teeth whitening products," thanks to the chemical bleaching ingredients," Dr. Lipari says.
You might also notice some increased gum or tooth sensitivity.
Less often, white spots or patches on gums could be a sign of leukoplakia, a condition caused by heavy smoking or tobacco use that can turn into oral cancer, says the Cleveland Clinic.
The patches might also appear on or underneath the tongue or on the insides of the cheeks. They don't typically hurt, but they could feel firm to the touch or bleed.
In some cases, white patches on your gums or elsewhere in your mouth might indicate oral cancer. The patch might feel sore or irritated, but it can also be numb, per the National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research.
If your gums have changed color due to teeth-whitening products, waiting it out usually does the trick. After a few hours, your gums should go back to their normal pink color, says Dr. Lipari.
But if you notice that the white color isn't going away or if you're experiencing pain or sensitivity that isn't easing up, let your dentist know. They can examine your gums to determine if you have leukoplakia or oral cancer.
How to Keep Your Gums Healthy
Whether you're looking to improve the health of your teeth and gums or stave off potential problems, the keys to a clean, happy mouth aren't complicated. Drs. Lipari and Wei recommend to:
- Brush your teeth twice a day and floss. Floss and then brush for two full minutes to sweep away any buildup. (Brushing after breakfast might be better than first thing in the morning, by the way.)
- See your dentist twice a year. Regular cleanings keep your teeth in good shape, plus, they're a chance to catch any potential tooth problems early, before they get too serious.
- If you smoke, quit. Smoking increases your risk for gum disease.
- Pay attention to your diet. You can't go wrong by eating plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables. (Some even help clean your teeth.) Try to limit sugary or acidic foods or drinks (like soda), because they can cause or worsen tooth decay.
When to See a Dentist
Healthy gums are pink or pinkish brown, firm and pain-free. So if you notice yours have changed color or if you're experiencing other dental symptoms (like pain, swelling or bleeding), let your dentist know. They can conduct a thorough exam to get to the bottom of your gum problem and determine how to treat it.
- National Library of Medicine: "Gingivitis and Periodontitis: A Review"
- Cleveland Clinic: "Gingivitis"
- Mayo Clinic: "Periodontitis"
- National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute: "Anemia Treatment and Management"
- Cleveland Clinic: "Leukoplakia"
- National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research: "Oral Cancer"
Is this an emergency? If you are experiencing serious medical symptoms, please see the National Library of Medicine’s list of signs you need emergency medical attention or call 911.