Keeping Your Teeth and Gums Healthy
Having a clean mouth is good for you in many ways. Not only does it give you fresh breath and a nice smile, but it also gives your self-esteem a lift. Thorough daily cleaning of your teeth and gums helps prevent tooth decay and periodontal disease (gum disease). Keeping your teeth and gums healthy also can improve your overall health. Periodontal disease may be a factor in the development of chronic conditions such as heart disease.
The best way to ensure oral health is to brush your teeth at least twice a day and to floss them daily. Brushing and flossing remove the thin sticky layer of bacteria that grows daily on your teeth. This layer of bacteria is called plaque, and it is responsible for both tooth decay and periodontal disease. When you eat, the bacteria in plaque produce acids that attack the teeth and irritate the gums, making them inflamed. Over time, the gums may bleed and pull away from the teeth. Bacteria and pus accumulate in the pockets that form in the spaces between the gums and the teeth. Eventually the bone around the teeth deteriorates, and the teeth loosen and fall out.
Flossing your teeth every day helps to remove the plaque that accumulates between your teeth, where your toothbrush cannot reach. It is also important to see your dentist for a thorough teeth cleaning twice a year, assuming that your gums are healthy. A professional cleaning helps to remove calculus (commonly known as tartar), a hard mineral deposit that forms on the teeth, providing an additional surface to which plaque can adhere. If you have periodontal disease or tend to accumulate calculus faster than normal, your dentist may recommend more frequent cleaning.
When you brush your teeth, be sure to use a soft-bristled brush. Brushes with medium or hard bristles are too abrasive and can make your gums recede from your teeth. Your teeth can then become sensitive to cold liquids because the roots of the teeth, which are normally covered by the gums, have been partially exposed. Place the toothbrush against your teeth at an angle and brush back and forth gently in short strokes. Brush the outer and inner tooth surfaces and the chewing areas of the teeth. Be sure to brush your tongue to remove bacteria and to freshen your breath.
To floss your teeth properly, use about 18 inches of floss and wind some of it around one of the middle fingers on each hand. Hold the floss between the thumb of one hand and the index finger of the other hand, or use both index fingers, or whatever feels most comfortable to you. Gently slide the floss between your teeth, up to the gum line. Do not snap the floss into your gums. Move the floss up and down between your teeth, and repeat this procedure on the rest of your teeth. If you find dental floss to be too unwieldy, try using another kind of dental cleaner, such as a pick, to clean between your teeth. Ask your dentist to show you how to use the device properly so you do not injure your teeth or gums.
Sugary and starchy foods—such as sweets, bread, crackers, and cereal—are more likely to cause plaque buildup than other foods. Try to limit your intake of these foods between meals, or brush your teeth soon after eating them. Better yet, snack on fresh fruit, raw vegetables, or plain yogurt. It will be better for your overall health as well.
To treat damage caused by tooth decay and gum disease, your dentist has a wide array of techniques available. He or she also can replace or repair teeth lost or damaged because of an injury to the mouth or the jaw. Extraction (pulling) of a tooth is now a last resort. Sometimes the line between corrective and cosmetic dentistry blurs when cosmetic techniques are used to repair or replace lost or damaged teeth. Remember to see your dentist twice a year for a thorough cleaning and checkup so that he or she can detect and treat any tooth or gum problems early. Common corrective dental techniques include:
• Silver amalgam fillings. Silver fillings consist of an alloy of several metals—such as silver, zinc, or tin— and mercury. Dentists use silver fillings to fill a tooth after all of the decayed material has been removed. Although it is a matter of some controversy, no proof exists that dental amalgam containing mercury poses any threat to your health.
• Crowns. Sometimes called caps, crowns are placed over a tooth that does not have enough tooth structure left for more conservative treatment, such as a veneer.
• Bridges. Dentists use replacement teeth called bridges to fill in the spaces left by one or more missing teeth to prevent the teeth adjacent to the space from shifting out of their normal position. The bridge is cemented to the adjacent teeth, which are fitted with crowns or caps.
• Implants. Implants are also used to replace missing teeth by placing a “substitute” root form into the jawbone. Crowns, caps, or bridges can then be attached to the implants without involving adjacent teeth.
• Root canal therapy. During root canal treatment, the dentist or oral surgeon first administers a local anesthetic and removes the infected nerve tissue from the tooth. Then he or she prepares the root canal to accept the filling material. At the next visit, the dentist will fill and seal the root canal with a plastic material that prevents future infection. The tooth may then require a crown or a cap.