What is trench mouth?

Trench mouth is a quickly progressing infection of the gums marked by bleeding, swelling, pain, ulcers between the teeth and death to gum tissue. The possibility of death (necrosis) to the teeth’s supporting structures makes trench mouth a more advanced and serious form of gingivitis, a common type of gum disease.

Although the disease was documented as early as the 4th century B.C., the term “trench mouth” came into use during World War I when soldiers in battlefield trenches suffered from poor oral hygiene, intense psychological stress, and poor diet, leading them to develop severe infections of the gums. More scientific names for the condition are necrotizing ulcerative gingivitis or necrotizing ulcerative periodontitis.

How common is trench mouth?

Trench mouth is not a common disease, affecting about 0.5% to 1% of the population. It shows an increased incidence among those who have immune system disease, particularly those who are HIV-positive. It is also more common in areas of the world where poor living conditions can prevent easy access to the tools and practices of good dental hygiene. As in the past, it is also still found frequently among soldiers.

Who is affected by trench mouth?

Young adults age 18-30 are most affected.

What are the symptoms of trench mouth?

  • Sudden appearance and rapid progression of intense gum pain, in either a limited or a large area
  • Ulcers of the papillae, the small projections of skin between the teeth
  • Yellow-white or gray membrane covering the ulcerated papillae
  • Death to gum tissue
  • Easily bleeding gums
  • Extremely bad breath
  • Swollen lymph glands (which would indicate a more severe or advanced state of the disease)
  • Fever
  • Fatigue

Last reviewed by a Cleveland Clinic medical professional on 05/01/2018.


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  • Malek R, Gharibi A, Khlil N, Kissa J. Necrotizing Ulcerative Gingivitis. Contemp Clin Dent. 2017 Jul-Sep; 8(3): 496-500.
  • Mizrahi Y. NUG – necrotizing ulcerative gingivitis: a review. Refuat Hapeh Vehashinayim (1993). 2014 Jul;31(3):41-7, 62.
  • Merck Manuals. Trench Mouth. Accessed 5/11/2018.

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