Tooth decay and gum disease are caused by plaque, a sticky combination of bacteria and food. Plaque begins to build up on teeth within 20 minutes after eating. If teeth are not cleaned well each day, plaque will lead to tooth decay. Over time, plaque will harden into tartar.
Plaque and tartar lead to a number of problems:
Cavities -- holes that damage the structure of teeth
A variety of health problems outside the mouth, from preterm labor to heart disease
Healthy teeth are clean and have no cavities. Healthy gums are pink and firm. To maintain healthy teeth and gums, follow these steps:
Brush your teeth at least twice daily, preferably after every meal and at bedtime
Floss at least once per day. If you floss only once a day, bedtime is better.
See your dentist for a routine cleaning and exam. Many dentists recommend having the teeth professionally cleaned every 6 months
Keep dentures, retainers, and other appliances clean. This includes brushing them regularly. You may also need to soak them in a cleansing solution.
Ask your dentist:
What kind of toothbrush you should use, and how to brush your teeth well. Ask if an electric tooth brush is right for you. Electric tooth brushes have been shown to clean teeth better than manual toothbrushes.
How to properly floss your teeth. Overly vigorous or improper flossing may injure the gums.
Whether you should use any special appliances or tools, such as water irrigation. This may sometimes help supplement (but not replace) brushing and flossing.
Whether you could benefit from particular toothpastes or mouth rinses. In some cases, over-the-counter pastes and rinses may be doing you more harm than good, depending on your condition.
Regular teeth cleaning by a dentist removes plaque that may develop, even with careful brushing and flossing. This is very important for getting at areas that are hard to reach on your own. Professional cleaning includes scaling and polishing. This procedure uses instruments to loosen and remove deposits from the teeth. Routine exams may include dental x-rays.
Shay K. Dental and oral disorders. In: Duthie EH, Katz PR, Malone ML, eds. Practice of Geriatrics. 4th ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Saunders Elsevier; 2007:chap 39.
Chow AW. Infections of the oral cavity, neck, and head. In: Mandell GL, Bennett JE, Dolin R, eds. Principles and Practice of Infectious Diseases. 7th ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Elsevier Churchill Livingstone; 2009:chap 60.
Ilona Fotek, DMD, MS, Palm Beach Prosthodontics Dental Associates, West Palm Beach, FL. Review provided by VeriMed Healthcare Network. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Isla Ogilvie, PhD, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.