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Gums hurt after flossing? What it means and what to do

If you just started flossing (hey, no judgement) or are a veteran flosser, find out what's causing you pain after you clean between your teeth.

Maybe your New Year's resolution is to finally start flossing every day, or you've been a diligent flosser for years to the delight of your dentist. No matter your experience with flossing, it is no fun to finish flossing your teeth and realize your gums are throbbing with pain.

Sore gums after flossing - don't blame the floss

While it's tempting to blame the floss for your sore gums, the floss is innocent. "Most people notice the soreness right after they floss," shares Wally hygienist, Sarah Clark, RDH. "The natural reaction is to think, 'oh I flossed and then my gums hurt, so the floss must have hurt me.' However there's something a little more complex going on."

Floss itself won't hurt your gums, unless your flossing technique is completely wrong (more on that in the next section). Chances are the floss triggered a reaction to another underlying issue in your mouth. 

Because floss is so small and gets into hard-to-reach places, it can accelerate or amplify irritation that is already happening in your mouth. Some of those issues are minor and will resolve themselves. Others are more serious. 

Let's dive into the causes of sore gums after flossing and what you can do.

Teeth hurt after flossing? Here is why

Ok, first let's lay out the list of reasons why your teeth or gums might be sore after you floss:

  • Improper 🤭 flossing technique
  • Temporary irritation
  • Tooth decay
  • Sensitivity
  • Gum disease

Now let's get into what each of these mean, how severe they are, and what you can do.

Improper flossing technique. If you are new to flossing, welcome to the club! As a freshman flosser you probably didn't get a great lesson on how to floss because, let's face it, most dentist offices are trying to rush you out of the chair and don't have time to discuss flossing technique.

Flossing incorrectly can jab, pull, or pinch your gums causing them to feel sore. The good news is you can avoid the pain with the right flossing technique:

  • Pull out ~18 inches of floss (about the length of your forearm) and wind the ends around two fingers, one on each hand. 
  • You want to dedicate about 1 inch of floss per space so each tooth gets a clean surface of floss. If you don't use enough floss you might move food particles from one tooth to another rather than removing it all together. 
  • Pinch the floss between your fingers so you have a 1-2 inch gap, and pull it taught. Then use your thumb or index finger to guide the floss between teeth. Use whichever finger feels comfortable as a guide 
  • Glide the floss between the teeth using a zig-zag motion. Use the floss to "hug" the sides of the tooth. Go all the way up / down the tooth until you go just below the gum line.
  • Avoid snapping the tooth into the gap between teeth or jamming it up into your gum line.
  • As you move around your mouth, roll out a fresh inch of floss for each tooth to avoid placing bacteria from one part of the mouth to another.

After a day or two of practicing your new flossing technique, your gums should feel right as rain. If not, keep reading for other things that might cause your gums to be sore post-floss.

Temporary irritations. One of the most common reasons why gums feel sore after you floss is something like getting a minor burn, or a small cut in your mouth. Did you drink tea that was way too hot this morning? Or bite into an extra toasty panini? Minor burns and cuts will heal on their own in about a day. Once your mouth heals, flossing should feel great again.

Tartar around your gum line. If you have bacteria that stays on your teeth for a long period of time, plaque will form on your teeth. When plaque stays on your teeth it can harden above or below your gum line into tartar. New plaque accumulates on top of the tartar, irritating your gums. If you have tartar buildup around your gumline, a professional dental cleaning is the only way to safely remove the hard buildup.

Tooth decay. A more serious reason for sore gums post-flossing is tooth decay, aka cavities. Cavities mean your enamel has been permanently damaged and the sensitive dentin inside your tooth has been exposed. "When dentin is exposed, something as simple as breathing air can cause pain close to a 10 out of 10," shares Wally dentist, Kevin Walker, DDS. Damaged enamel can't repair itself - a trip to the dentist is the only way to assess the damage and create a strategy for how to restore your tooth to health.

Gum disease. Gum disease is a progressive disease, like diabetes. They are caused by infections in the gums and bone surrounding the teeth. Early stage gum disease, called gingivitis, is reversible. Later-stage gum disease is called periodontitis and means there is significant, permanent damage to your gums and bone. Your dentist will be able to diagnose if you have any form of gum disease with a thorough diagnostic exam.

If you have minor gum disease, the good news is you can get back on track. 90% of getting healthy is proper care at home, and the other 10% comes from a professional cleaning. If you have advanced gum disease (periodontitis) you'll need a special procedure called "periodontal therapy" that eliminates bacteria buildup and active decay around and under the gum line.

Flossing hurts? Don't stop!

Under no circumstance are you off the hook to floss. Even if your sore gums are due to something significant, flossing can still help you.

"It can be hard to get an appointment with a regular dentist if you think something serious is going on," sympathizes Sarah Clark, RDH. "But even if you can't get into your dentist right away, the best thing you can do for your oral health is to continue brushing and flossing daily to prevent the issue from progressing."

If your gums are feeling sore, check out our guide on how to take control and keep your gums healthy. Healthy gums are foundational for a healthy mouth.

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