What Is Gingivostomatitis?

Gingivostomatitis is a common infection of the mouth and gums. The primary symptoms are mouth or gum swelling, and lesions in the mouth that resemble canker sores. This infection may be the result of a viral or bacterial infection, and is often associated with improper care of your teeth and mouth.

Gingivostomatitis is especially common among children. Children with gingivostomatitis may drool and refuse to eat or drink because of the discomfort (often severe) caused by the sores. They may also develop fever and swollen lymph nodes.

Contact your doctor if:

  • symptoms worsen or persist more than a few days
  • you or your child experience fever or sore throat
  • your child refuses to eat or drink

What Are the Causes of Gingivostomatitis?

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Gingivostomatitis may occur because of:

  • herpes simplex virus type 1 (HSV-1), the virus that causes cold sores
  • coxsackie virus, a virus often transmitted by touching a surface or an individual’s hand contaminated with feces (this virus can also cause flu-like symptoms)
  • certain bacteria (streptococcus, actinomyces)
  • poor oral hygiene (not flossing and brushing your teeth regularly)

What Are the Symptoms of Gingivostomatitis?

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Symptoms of gingivostomatitis can vary in seriousness. You may feel minor discomfort, or experience severe pain and mouth tenderness. Symptoms of gingivostomatitis may include:

  • tender sores on the gums or insides of cheeks (like canker sores, they are grayish or yellow on the outside and red in the center)
  • bad breath
  • fever
  • swollen, bleeding gums
  • swollen lymph nodes
  • drooling, especially in young children
  • a general feeling of being unwell (malaise)
  • difficulty eating or drinking due to mouth discomfort; in children, a refusal to eat or drink

How Is Gingivostomatitis Diagnosed?

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Your doctor will check your mouth for sores, the main symptoms of the condition. Additional tests are not usually necessary. However, if other symptoms are also present (such as cough, fever, and muscle pain), they may want to do additional tests.

In some cases, your doctor may take a culture (swab) from the sore to check for bacteria (strep throat) or viruses. Your doctor may remove a piece of skin to perform a biopsy if closer examination is needed or if other suspicious mouth sores are also present.

What Are the Treatments for Gingivostomatitis?

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Gingivostomatitis sores usually disappear within two to three weeks without treatment. For bacterial or viral-caused gingivostomatitis, your doctor may prescribe an antibiotic and may also clean the infected area to promote healing.

There are a number of actions you can take to relieve discomfort.

  • Take any medications prescribed by your doctor.
  • Rinse your mouth with a medicated mouthwash containing hydrogen peroxide or xylocaine. These are readily available at your local drugstore. You can also make your own by mixing 1/2 teaspoon of salt in 1 cup of water.
  • Eat a healthy diet, avoiding very spicy, salty, or sour foods. These foods can sting or irritate the sores. Soft foods may also be more comfortable to eat.

Over-the-counter pain relievers may also help. Continue to brush your teeth and gums, even if it hurts. If you don’t continue to practice good oral care, your symptoms could worsen and you’ll be more likely to develop gingivostomatitis again in the future. Gently brushing with a soft toothbrush will make brushing less painful.

Complications of Gingivostomatitis

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Herpes Simplex Virus Type 1 (HSV-1)

HSV-1 can lead to gingivostomatitis. This virus usually isn’t serious, but it can cause complications in babies and those with weakened immune systems.

The HSV-1 virus can also spread to the eye, where it can infect the eye’s cornea. This condition is called herpes simplex keratitis (HSK). Individuals should always wash their hands after touching a cold sore, as the virus can easily spread to the eye. In addition to pain and discomfort, HSK can cause permanent eye damage, even blindness. Symptoms of HSK include watery, red eyes and sensitivity to light.

HSV-1 can also transfer to the genitals through oral sex when mouth sores are present, although most cases of genital herpes are due to HSV-2. Painful genital sores are the hallmark of HSV-2. It is highly contagious.

Decreased Appetite and Dehydration

Children with gingivostomatitis sometimes refuse to eat or drink, which can eventually cause dehydration. Symptoms of dehydration include a dry mouth, dry skin, dizziness, tiredness, and constipation. Parents may notice that their child is sleeping more than usual or isn’t interested in their usual activities.

Contact your doctor if your child has gingivostomatitis and refuses to eat or drink.

How to Prevent Gingivostomatitis

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Taking care of your teeth and gums may decrease your risk of getting gingivostomatitis. Good oral hygiene basics include:

  • brushing your teeth at least twice a day, especially after eating and before going to sleep
  • flossing daily
  • getting your teeth professionally examined and cleaned by a dentist every six months
  • keeping mouth pieces (dentures, retainers, musical instruments) clean to prevent bacteria growth

Healthy gums are pink with no sores or lesions.

To avoid the HSV-1 virus that can cause gingivostomatitis, avoid kissing or touching the face of an infected individual. Do not share makeup, razors, or silverware with an infected person.

Frequently washing your hands is the best way to avoid the coxsackie virus. This is especially important after using public toilets or changing a baby’s diaper and before eating or preparing meals. It’s important to educate children about the importance of proper hand washing to avoid getting sick.

What Is the Outlook for Gingivostomatitis?

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Gingivostomatitis can be a mild nuisance, or it can be painful and very uncomfortable. Generally, sores heal in two to three weeks. Treating the bacteria or virus with the appropriate antibiotics or antiviral agents may help to expedite healing. Home care treatments can also help with the symptoms.

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