Trench Mouth

Written by Brian Krans | Published on September 4, 2012
Medically Reviewed by George Krucik, MD

What Is Trench Mouth?

Trench mouth is a severe gum infection caused by a buildup of bacteria in the mouth. It is characterized by painful, bleeding gums and ulcers in the gums.

Your mouth naturally contains a balance of healthy bacteria, fungi, and viruses. However, poor dental hygiene can cause harmful bacteria to grow. Red, sensitive, and bleeding gums are symptoms of a condition known as gingivitis. Trench mouth is a rapidly progressing form of gingivitis.

According to the Mayo Clinic, the term “trench mouth” can be traced back to World War I, when it was common for soldiers to experience severe gum problems because they didn’t have access to dental care while in battle. It is formally known as Vincent’s stomatitis, acute necrotizing ulcerative gingivitis, or necrotizing ulcerative gingivitis(Mayo Clinic, 2010).

Though rare, trench mouth typically affects people between the ages of 15 and 35. It is most common in under-developed nations and areas with poor nutrition and living conditions.

What Causes Trench Mouth?

Trench mouth is caused by an infection of the gums due to the overabundance of harmful bacteria.

Trench mouth has been linked to the following risk factors:

  • poor dental hygiene
  • poor nutrition
  • smoking
  • stress
  • a weakened immune system
  • infection of the mouth, teeth, or throat

If left untreated, the infection worsens and damages gum tissue. This can lead to a host of problems, including possible ulcers and tooth loss.

Symptoms of Trench Mouth

Trench mouth has similar symptoms to gingivitis, but will progress more rapidly.

Symptoms of trench mouth include:

  • bad breath or a bad taste in the mouth
  • bleeding in response to irritation (such as brushing) or pressure
  • crater-like ulcers in the mouth
  • fatigue
  • fever
  • grayish film on the gums
  • gums that are red, swollen, or bleeding
  • pain in the gums

How Is Trench Mouth Diagnosed?

A dentist can usually diagnose trench mouth during an examination. He or she will look for the symptoms described above. Your dentist may gently prod your gums to see how easily they bleed when poked. He or she may also order X-rays to see if the infection has spread to the bone beneath your gums.

Along with a physical examination of your mouth, your doctor may check for other symptoms, such as fever or fatigue. In addition, he or she may draw your blood to check for other, possibly undiagnosed conditions. HIV infection and other immune problems can promote the growth of bacteria in your mouth.

Treating Trench Mouth

With treatment, trench mouth can typically be cured in a matter of weeks. Treatment will include antibiotics to stop the infection from spreading further, pain relievers, professional cleaning from a dental hygienist, and proper ongoing oral hygiene.

Brushing and flossing your teeth thoroughly twice a day are imperative for controlling the symptoms of trench mouth. Warm salt water rinses and rinsing with hydrogen peroxide can ease the pain of inflamed gums and also help remove dead tissue.

Avoiding smoking and hot or spicy foods while your gums heal is also recommended.

Living with Trench Mouth

Regular and effective dental care is crucial for preventing trench mouth from returning. While the condition rarely has serious side effects, ignoring symptoms can lead to potentially serious complications, such as:

  • tooth loss
  • destruction of gum tissue
  • trouble swallowing
  • oral diseases that can damage bone and gum tissue
  • pain

To avoid complications of trench mouth, the following steps should be taken regularly:

  • brush and floss your teeth twice a day, especially after a meal (electric toothbrushes are recommended)
  • avoid tobacco products, including cigarettes and chew
  • eat a healthy diet
  • keep your stress level down

Managing pain during the healing process is also key. Over-the-counter pain relievers are typically enough to control pain, but talk to your doctor if you encounter problems.

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