Popcorn can be a healthy snack indeed: The puffy kernels themselves are unprocessed whole grains, containing plenty of fiber, and even some antioxidants. If you don’t overload your popcorn with butter, oil or salt, it’s low in fat, calories and sodium—and it fills you up, too. So what’s not to like about this “ideal snack?” Ask your periodontist or dental hygienist that question, and they may reply with just two words: gum abscess.
Let’s hope you’ve never had a periodontal (gum) abscess; if you have, you may already be familiar with the swelling, irritation and pain it can cause. These symptoms result from the inflammation and pressure that builds up in a pus-filled sac, which can develop rapidly underneath the gum line. Left untreated, this simmering bacterial infection often results in intense discomfort, and can eventually lead to tooth loss.
What causes an abscess to form? One cause is uncontrolled periodontal disease, which is sometimes seen in older adults. Another is food particles or foreign objects that become lodged in the tight spaces between the teeth and gums. And, according to many dental health professionals, there’s one foreign object that appears to be the culprit more often than any other, especially in younger people. You guessed it: popcorn hulls.
Why do these hulls, or husks, have such a tendency to get trapped under the gums? One reason may be that the tough, rounded shells coating the kernels (which are the very things that cause the corn to pop) seem to conform to the rounded shape of the tooth’s crown. It’s easy for them to slip into the tiny gap between teeth and gums, which dentists call the sulcus or “pocket”. Once they are there, it’s extremely hard to remove them at home, whether you use a toothbrush, floss, or a toothpick; they seem to stick like suction cups to the tooth surfaces.
While popcorn hulls are frequently associated with gum abscesses, they aren’t the only thing that can cause them. Fingernail fragments (from nail biting), wooden splinters (pencil chewing), and other foreign objects can result in the same problem. So if you think you may have a gum abscess, what should you do?
First, seek a dentist’s help right away; while it may be scary, an abscess often responds to treatment very rapidly. X-rays and special dental instruments can be used to find and remove the source of the irritation, and draining fluid from the abscess generally eases the pain. A warm salt-water rinse can be used to soothe inflamed tissues. Occasionally, antibiotics or other medications may be prescribed.
Does this mean you should stop eating popcorn? Not necessarily—but you should be aware of this potential issue, and pay attention to any unexplained pain in your gums, teeth or jaw. What seems like a toothache might turn out to be an abscess starting to form—a condition you will want to keep a close eye on. Call us at 1-800-238-5163 to find out about how dental savings plans can help make quality dental care affordable.