If you’re like most Americans, flossing is probably an activity you skip a bit too often. Although the American Dental Association (ADA) recommends flossing daily, only 16 percent of American adults say they follow that guideline. (Oh, and 44 percent say they lie to their dentist about how often they floss.)
This floss aversion has consequences: In a 2012 survey of nearly 4,000 American adults over age 30, over 47 percent had some level of gum disease. (Here are the symptoms of gum disease to know about.)
So when you do take out that little box of floss, you probably feel pretty proud of yourself. Nothing says “I’m a responsible adult” quite like flossing, amirite?
There’s a big mistake many people make when flossing that actually makes their dental health even worse. It’s counterintuitive, but here it is: Don’t fear the blood.
How Flossing Supports Gum Health
Most people think of deeply discolored, bleeding gums when they think of gum disease, but it takes a while to progress to that point. Gum disease exists on a spectrum, starting with the first stage: gingivitis.
Gum disease is an infection in the gum tissue caused by plaque on the teeth, according to ADA. When plaque (i.e. that sticky bacteria on your teeth) sits on the gum line without proper removal and poor oral hygiene, it begins to infect the gum tissue.
Most Americans have some level of gingivitis, according to Jennifer Jablow, DDS, dentist in New York City. Early gingivitis is a “low-level inflammation in the gums,” says Dr. Jablow. “Sometimes you have a little puffiness around one or two teeth.
Gingivitis is not permanent, and reversing the progression of gum disease is relatively easy at this point. One significant way to treat and reverse gum disease is with—you guessed it—proper brushing and flossing. Good oral hygiene minimizes the plaque buildup between professional dentist cleanings, reducing your risk of periodontal disease.
The Mistake that Makes Gum Disease Worse
“The main symptom of gingivitis is puffiness and bleeding, but also discomfort,” says Dr. Jablow. The discomfort will be at its worst when your gums are being touched—such as during flossing.
Even though flossing is an important tool to treat gum disease, it may make infected gums feel tender or even painful. This leads many patients to make a devastating mistake: avoiding the swollen, bleeding spot.
Many patients see the blood in the sink or on their floss and fear they’re injuring their own gums. “They actually get nervous and stay away from that area because they don’t want it to bleed,” explains Dr. Jablow. “They think [that] they’re causing the bleeding.”
Bleeding gums are a sign of a problem, but they’re not an injury. They’re a symptom, and flossing is the treatment. “It’s actually the repair process in your body [that’s] causing the bleeding,” says Dr. Jablow. “It’s important that you floss and clean that area regularly, or it won’t resolve and it will get worse.”
In other words, this is a classic case of “it’s going to get worse before it gets better.”
Tips to Prevent and Treat Gum Disease
Flossing regularly—even in the inflamed spots—isn’t the only way to reverse the progression of periodontal disease. Your overall oral care can promote gum and tooth health and prevent infections and even tooth loss. Keep these tips in mind, according to the American Academy of Periodontology: