Oral health is much more than just a smile with sparkling white teeth. The word “oral” refers to your teeth, gums, jawbone, and supporting tissues. These structures are often taken for granted, yet they are the very essence of our humanity! They allow us to speak, smile, kiss, taste, and chew among other things!
We often neglect our oral health, but doing so can have long-term consequences. Poor oral hygiene can lead to health problems, such as cavities and gum disease. Cavities, also known as tooth decay, occur when the good bacteria that naturally live in our mouths use sugars in the food we eat to make acids. Eventually, the acid builds up and destroys the outer layer of our teeth, resulting in cavities. Cavities are preventable but remain the most common chronic oral disease in almost every age group from children to the elderly. Approximately 1 out of 5 children ages 5-11 have untreated cavities. In adolescents, 1 out of 7 has cavities. In adults, 9 out of 10 have some degree of tooth decay.
Similarly, gum disease occurs when bacteria form a sticky, colorless layer on our teeth called plaque. The plaque can harden and form what is called “tartar.” Be very careful of tartar because it is not easily removed by brushing—only a professional dentist or dental hygienist can remove it. The buildup of plaque and tartar on teeth can become very harmful. The bacteria can trigger inflammation of the gums, which is called “gingivitis.” The gums become red, swollen, and prone to bleeding easily. If gingivitis is left untreated, it can progress to “periodontitis.” In periodontitis, inflammation caused by the bacteria start to spread below the gum line and destroy the gums, resulting in spaces between teeth (called “pockets”). If periodontitis is not treated, teeth-supporting bones, gums, and tissues are destroyed and the teeth become loose. Once teeth become loose, they have to be removed.
- Brush your teeth twice a day with fluoride toothpaste and a soft-bristled toothbrush that fits your mouth comfortably.
- Floss once a day.
- Eat a well-balanced diet. Snack smart and limit sugary snacks.
- Don’t smoke or chew tobacco. Smoking increases your risk for gum disease.
- Visit your dentist regularly for a checkup and cleaning. If you do not have a dentist or dental insurance, visit the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services to find a health center near you: http://findahealthcenter.hrsa.gov.
Other helpful tips:
- Brush the outer and inner surfaces of your teeth.
- Brush your tongue.
- Store your toothbrush in an upright position and do not store them in closed containers. Remember the bristles are moist and the tiny crevices promote bacterial growth.
- Replace your toothbrush every 3-4 months, and even earlier if the bristles are frayed.
- Doesn’t matter if you brush or floss first! As long as you do a thorough job for both. Although, flossing first can potentially allow the fluoride in your toothpaste to reach deeply between your teeth.
National Institutes of Health. (2016, January 28). Taking Care of Your Teeth and Mouth. Retrieved from https://www.nia.nih.gov/health/publication/taking-care-your-teeth-and-mouthCenters for Disease Control and Prevention. (2014, November 10). Children’s’ Oral Health. Retrieved from http://www.cdc.gov/oralhealth/children_adults/child.htm
Mayo Clinic. (2013, May 14). Adult Health. Retrieved from http://www.mayoclinic.org/dental/ART-20045536?p=1
Written by: Angela Do
Philadelphia Ujima Graduate Student Intern