Caring for Your Teeth

Health, Home & Family
on January 26, 2008

Your teeth are meant to last a lifetime, and they can, if you take good care of them. Good dental hygiene includes cleaning your teeth, gums and tongue properly and seeing your dentist at least twice a year.

Taking care of your teeth helps prevent tooth decay and gum disease, the main causes of tooth loss. Tooth decay, also known as cavities, is caused by bacteria that live in plaque, a sticky, white film that constantly forms on your teeth.

Plaque develops when the bacteria that is naturally present in your mouth interacts with food debris and saliva. When you eat or drink starchy or sugary foods, the bacteria in plaque produce acids that dissolve tooth enamel, the hard outer coating on teeth. With repeated exposure to plaque, enamel can break down, resulting in a cavity.

A buildup of plaque also can lead to gum disease. When plaque is not removed by thorough daily brushing and cleaning between teeth, it eventually hardens into tartar that collects at the gum line. Gum tissue may become swollen or bleed when brushed—a sign of gingivitis, the earliest stage of gum disease.

Gingivitis can progress to periodontitis, in which gums pull away from teeth and form pockets that often become infected. If not treated, the jawbone, gums and connective tissue around teeth are destroyed and teeth can fall out.

Brushing and flossing
Good oral care at home combined with regular professional cleaning helps control plaque. “My teeth are cleaned at my dentist’s twice a year,” says Ruth Davis, 66, a real estate broker in White Plains, N.Y. (pop. 53,077). “So far, I’ve avoided gum problems, but once in a while I have a small cavity. After it’s filled, my dentist reminds me about good brushing and flossing.”

To brush properly:

  • Hold your toothbrush at a slight angle against your teeth and use short back-and-forth motions.
  • Brush the outside, inside and chewing surfaces of your teeth, spending about two minutes in all.
  • Gently brush your tongue. This helps remove bacteria and freshens your breath.

“Ideally, you should brush each time you eat, but twice a day is adequate for most people,” says Mary Squire, a dentist in Manchester Center, Vt. (pop. 2,065). “Brush with a soft-bristle toothbrush,” she says. “Replace it every three or four months or sooner if the bristles splay.” “Many people mistakenly think that using an electric toothbrush does the entire cleaning job,” says Susan Karabin, a periodontist in New York City and president of the American Academy of Periodontology. “The only way to effectively remove plaque at the gum line and between teeth is to brush regularly and also to floss daily or use an interdental brush or other device designed to reach small spaces.”

To floss correctly:

  • Ease a long strand of floss between two teeth.
  • Pull the floss up and down a few times, curving the floss around the tooth at the gum line.
  • Use a clean section of floss as you progress from tooth to tooth, and be sure to floss behind the last tooth.

Waxed floss may slide more easily. If you have trouble manipulating floss, try using a floss holder, or ask your dentist or hygienist for instructions. If you haven’t been flossing regularly, you may experience sore or bleeding gums for a few days; if the problem continues, contact your dentist.

Eat for your teeth
In addition to brushing and flossing, you can care for your teeth by paying attention to your diet. Eating sweets or drinking sugary beverages between meals encourages cavities, because it increases the amount of time teeth are exposed to acids.

On the other hand, some foods can help prevent decay. Eating aged cheese immediately after other foods can neutralize enamel-damaging acid. Crunchy fruits like apples and pears have a high water content that dilutes sugars and stimulates the flow of saliva, which washes away food particles. “Chewing sugarless gum promotes saliva production, which helps ‘wash away’ cavity-producing bacteria,” Karabin says. Eating calcium-rich foods such as milk, yogurt and green leafy vegetables, and taking calcium supplements, if necessary, can help maintain healthy teeth.

Fluoride also helps prevent tooth decay. If the water supply in your area isn’t fluoridated, your dentist may apply a fluoride solution to your teeth or suggest you use a fluoride rinse.

Most people with healthy teeth should visit their dentist every six months. “Besides regularly scheduled checkups, see your dentist if your gums bleed, your bite changes or any part of your mouth becomes painful,” Squire says. v By practicing good oral hygiene and getting regular checkups, you can maintain strong, healthy teeth for years. That’s something to smile about.