Dental braces, or orthodontics, are used to fix crowded or crooked teeth, and can be an effective way to correct an abnormal bite or a misaligned jaw. But wearing braces is not without side effects, and a common, although usually temporary, side effect of wearing braces is swollen gums. Sometimes this swelling occurs shortly after receiving new braces or having an adjustment, but ongoing swelling can be a sign of plaque buildup or related to persistent irritation from the braces. The best treatment to ease the swelling and discomfort starts with determining the cause, so seek advice from your orthodontist if you have swelling that lasts more than a few days.
Braces crowd the surface of the teeth, and make it harder to remove plaque -- a soft, sticky film which not only causes tooth decay, but also leads to gum irritation and swelling. To prevent plaque buildup, use a soft toothbrush to thoroughly clean teeth at least twice daily. Although the presence of braces can make flossing a challenge, try to floss daily to clean the spaces in between your teeth. Interdental brushes can be an alternative to flossing, and these tiny brushes are an effective tool for cleaning under and around the wires. A water flosser, such as a Waterpik, is also an easy and effective way to remove food debris around your braces. After cleaning, wash your mouth with an antimicrobial or fluoride mouth rinse. If these mouthwashes are irritating to your gums, try warm salt water instead.
Sometimes the irritation from braces can cause gum tissue to swell and overgrow. In addition to diligent oral hygiene, you’ll want to avoid certain practices or habits that can further injure or irritate your swollen gums. For example, eating hard, crunchy foods can worsen gum irritation and even cause minor gum injury. Nail biting or pen chewing can also aggravate already swollen gums. Also avoid smoking cigarettes or using smokeless tobacco, like snuff and chew, as these substances are linked to an increased risk of gum disease, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
There are several strategies to counter the pain and discomfort from swollen gums. A simple home remedy is to apply an ice pack to the outside of your mouth to help reduce swelling and pain. Even drinking ice water can soothe swollen gums. For fast pain relief, topical anesthetics such as Anbesol and Orajel can be directly applied to the gums. Over-the-counter pain relievers such as ibuprofen (Advil) or acetaminophen (Tylenol) can also be used to manage pain, and can even be taken before the orthodontist appointments to ease discomfort during the tightening process. If you are under a doctor's care for a medical condition, or if you aren't sure the best choice of pain reliever for you or your teen, talk to your doctor about safe and effective options.
It’s normal to temporarily experience swollen gums after getting braces placed -- or after an adjustment. Keeping teeth clean is essential to preventing gum irritation, so seek advice from your orthodontist about best practices for brushing and flossing, and inquire about other products or tools that will help clean your teeth and protect your gums. Let your orthodontist know if swollen gums persist or if your have bleeding, fever or ongoing pain.
Reviewed by Kay Peck, MPH RD