Even if you’re not a fan of going to the dentist, you know that you should because it’s vital for helping your teeth and gums be healthy. However, taking care of your mouth is also vital to your overall health. What are these impacts? What could happen if you don’t look after your teeth?
Most people don’t’ realize that their oral health is extremely important or that problems in their mouth can affect the rest of their body. Dental hygiene is the practice of keeping the mouth, teeth, and gums clean and healthy to prevent disease. It’s often taken for granted but is an essential part of our everyday lives. Unfortunately, many individuals go without simple measures that have been proven effective in preventing oral diseases and reducing dental care costs.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), 60 – 90% of school children have at least one dental cavity, and nearly 100% of adults have at least one dental cavity. The agency further states that 15 – 20% of adults ages 35 to 44 have severe gum disease, and, in most countries, there are 1 – 10 cases of oral cancer per 100,000 people. In addition, data shows that about 30% of people worldwide between 65 – 74 don’t have any natural teeth left. Not surprisingly, the burden of oral disease is much higher in poor or disadvantaged population groups.
Another thing many people don’t realize is that their mouth has significant amounts of bacteria. Thankfully, they’re mostly harmless. Generally, your body’s natural defenses and good oral health keep it under control. However, without proper oral hygiene, bacteria can reach levels that can lead to oral infections. Since your mouth is the entry point to your digestive and respiratory tracts, it’s easy for the bacteria to spread and cause disease.
What Can You Do to Have Good Dental Hygiene?
To have healthy teeth, you must take the proper steps every day to take care of them and prevent problems. The earlier you start practicing proper oral hygiene habits, the easier it’ll be to avoid costly dental procedures and long-term health issues.
The number one thing you should do is brush regularly because it removes the plaque that causes tooth decay and stimulates your gums to help prevent gum disease. It’s key to brush your teeth and gums twice a day for at least two minutes each time. It’s essential to use a soft-bristled toothbrush and toothpaste that contains fluoride. When brushing, take your time, and move the toothbrush in gentle, circular motions. Since plaque can also build up on your tongue, gently brush it every time you brush your teeth.
Don’t go to bed without brushing your teeth. You should replace your toothbrush every three months or sooner if the bristles are splayed or worn. Look for dental products that have the American Dental Association’s Seal of Acceptance. There are kinds of toothpaste available that are designed to battle gum disease.
It’s vital to treat flossing as important as brushing because it gets out little pieces of food that may get stuck between your teeth and stimulates your gums, which helps lower inflammation in the area. Flossing once a day is usually sufficient to get these benefits. If you have trouble flossing due to arthritis or other conditions, there are plenty of tools that can help, such as a Waterpik water flosser.
Once you’re done brushing and flossing, use mouthwash. It helps in three ways by reducing the amount of acid in the mouth, cleaning hard-to-brush areas in and around the gums, and re-mineralizing your teeth. If you have sensitive, there are specific brands of toothpaste and mouthwash available.
A critical step to having good oral health is to eat a healthy diet that doesn’t include foods with added sugars. Some foods have hidden sugars, like condiments (ex. ketchup and barbecue sauce), sliced fruit or applesauce in cans or jars that have added sugars, flavored yogurt, pasta sauce, sweetened iced tea, soda, sports drinks, juice or juice blends, granola, cereal bars, and muffins.
It would help if you also tried to limit the number of acidic foods you eat, such as fruits, tea, and coffee. Both erode the enamel on your teeth. Rinse your mouth out after meals with water because it helps to flush away some of these products. Another option is to chew sugarless gum. Try to avoid snacking as well since this can contribute to particles remaining on your teeth. It’s crucial not to use tobacco products. It’s also essential to protect your teeth with a mouth guard during athletics.
You should see your dentist at least twice a year. They can detect a whole lot more than cavities. Some of these are vitamin deficiencies, acid reflux, tooth grinding, diabetes, osteoporosis, heart problems, dementia, mental health issues, and oral cancers. It’s important to tell your dentist about changes in your overall health, particularly any recent illnesses or chronic conditions. You should also provide an updated copy of your medication, both prescription and over-the-counter products. If you use tobacco, talk to your dentist about options for quitting.
During the exam, your dentist will use a tool, a probe, to measure your gum pockets. By using this small ruler, your dentist can tell whether or not you have gum disease or receding gums. In a healthy mouth, the depth of the pockets between the teeth is usually between 1 and 3 millimeters (mm). Any measurement higher than that may mean you have gum disease.
The next step is a professional cleaning, which a dental hygienist usually does. These cleanings can eliminate any plaque and tartar (hardened plaque) you may have missed while brushing and flossing. This part is often done with a small scraper. After all the tartar is removed, the hygienist will use a high-powered toothbrush to brush your teeth. This is followed by flossing and rinsing to wash out any debris. Sometimes, you might need a deep cleaning (scaling and root planning) to remove tartar from above and below the gumline that can’t be reached during routine cleaning.
After the cleaning, your dentist may apply a fluoride treatment to help fight off cavities. Fluoride is a naturally occurring mineral that helps strengthen your tooth’s enamel and make them more resilient to bacteria and acid. Another option is dental sealants, which are thin, protective coatings placed on the back teeth or molars to help prevent cavities. Most dentists recommend these for children as soon as they get their first molars, at around age six, and again when they get their second set of molars around age 12. They’re easy to apply and painless.
Some studies indicate that probiotics prevent plaque, treat bad breath, decrease inflammation from gum disease, and prevent oral cancers. Larger clinical trials are still needed to prove the effectiveness of these claims, but current data is promising.
Since children are highly susceptible to dental cavities and tooth decay, especially those who are bottle-fed, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends that children start seeing a dentist by their first birthday. There are several other things you can do to help your child avoid tooth decay. The first is to only bottle feed during meal times and wean your child off of a bottle by the time they’re one year old. If you must give them a bottle a bedtime, fill it with water. Once their teeth start to come in, begin brushing with a soft baby toothbrush using only water until your child learns not to swallow the toothpaste.
Signs of Dental Problems
Healthy gums are pink and don’t bleed when brushed or flossed. Certain signs can indicate that something is wrong. These can include ulcers, sores, or tender areas in the mouth that won’t heal after a week or two; bleeding or swollen gums after brushing or flossing; chronic bad breath; sudden sensitivity to hot and cold temperatures or beverages; pain or toothache; loose teeth; receding gums; pain with chewing or biting; swelling of the face and cheek; clicking of the jaw; cracked or broken teeth; frequent dry mouth; changes in the way your teeth fit together when you bite; or changes in the fit of partial dentures. If you experience any of these, you should make an appointment to see your dentist as soon as possible.
One of the most common problems is cavities, which are also called caries or tooth decay. They happen when bacteria, food, and acid coat your teeth forming plaque. This starts to eat away at the enamel (the protective coating on your teeth) and then the underlying dentin (connective tissue). Over time, this leads to permanent damage and, in some cases, holes in your teeth.
As plaque accumulates, it hardens and travels down the length of your tooth, which can inflame your gums and cause gingivitis. This condition increases inflammation in your gums, causing them to pull away from your teeth. As this happens, pockets form in which pus can collect. If your gums swell and bleed when you brush or floss, you might have gingivitis. If left untreated, gingivitis can lead to periodontitis.
Periodontitis is when the infection spreads to your jaw and bones. It can also cause an inflammatory response throughout the body. Teeth become loose, chewing becomes difficult, and teeth may have to be removed.
Sometimes, a tooth can crack or break from an injury, chewing hard foods or grinding your teeth at night. They can be very painful. If you have a cracked or broken tooth, you should visit your dentist right away since bacteria can easily enter your body through the opening.
Some people have sensitive teeth, which means they might feel pain or discomfort after having cold or hot foods or beverages. This is also known as dentin hypersensitivity. It can occur temporarily after having a root canal or a filling. However, it’s also a sign of gum disease, receding gums, a cracked tooth, or worn-down fillings or crowns. Some individuals naturally have sensitive teeth because they have thinner enamel.
Per the Oral Cancer Foundation (OCF), close to 50,000 Americans will be diagnosed with oral cancer each year. Oral cancers include cancer of the gums, tongue, lips, cheek, floor of the mouth, and hard and soft palate. The most significant risk factor for oral cancer is tobacco use, either from smoking or chewing it.
When there is something wrong with your teeth, your dentist will need to fix it. A filling is used to repair a cavity, crack, or hole in the tooth. For this procedure, your dentist will first use a drill to remove the tooth’s damaged area and fill the space with some material, such as amalgam or composite. If a large portion of your tooth needs to be removed or has broken off, your dentist will put in a crown.
There are two types of crowns. An implant crown fits over an implant, whereas a regular crown that fits over a natural tooth. Both types fill in the gap where your natural tooth was. If tooth decay makes it to the nerve inside your tooth, you might need a root canal. During a root canal, the nerve is removed and replaced with a filling made of a biocompatible material (ex. a combination of a rubber-like material called gutta-percha and adhesive cement).
There are several different kinds of oral surgery used to treat more severe cases of periodontal disease:
- Flap surgery involves an oral surgeon making a small cut in the gum to lift a section of the tissue so that they can remove tartar and bacteria from underneath the gums. The flap is then stitched back into place around your teeth.
- Bone grafting is needed when gum disease causes damage to the bone surrounding the root of your tooth. The damaged bone is replaced with a graft made from your own bone, a synthetic bone, or a donated bone.
- A soft tissue graft is used to treat receding gums by removing a small piece of tissue from your mouth or using donor tissue and connecting it to the affected area.
- If your dentist can’t save your tooth with a root canal or other surgery, the tooth will need to be removed (extracted). Some individuals need to have their wisdom teeth, or third molars, removed if they’re impacted, or their jaw isn’t large enough to accommodate them.
- Dental implants are used to replace missing teeth that are lost due to a disease or an accident. Typically, they’re surgically placed into the jawbone. After it’s in place, your bones will grow around it, and then your dentist will customize a new artificial tooth (crown) for you that matches your other teeth. If you need more than one tooth replaced, your dentist may customize a bridge to fit into your mouth, which is made of two abutment crowns on either side of the gap (this helps hold the artificial teeth in between in place).
Overall Health Concerns Related to Poor Dental Health
A concerning factor that many don’t know is that infections that start in your mouth have been linked to other diseases, such as asthma, arthritis, premature births, low-birthweight babies, respiratory problems, coronary artery disease, and stroke. In some cases, untreated tooth and gum disease has even led to death! This happens because the mouth acts as a portal of entry for infection because ongoing inflammation in your mouth allows bacteria to enter the bloodstream, which may lead to more inflammation in other parts of your body.
Some diseases, like diabetes, blood cell disorders, and HIV/AIDS, lower the body’s resistance to infection, making oral diseases more severe. It’s important to note that just because two conditions occur simultaneously, it doesn’t necessarily mean that one condition causes the other.
Some research suggests that cardiovascular disease may be linked to the inflammation and infections that oral bacteria cause. If this bacteria gets into the bloodstream, it can cause the arteries to build up plaque and harden. This leads to blood flow problems and heart blockages, increasing the likelihood of having a heart attack and stroke. Researchers at the University of North Carolina School of Dentistry discovered that individuals with gum disease are twice as likely as others to die from a heart attack and three times as likely to have a stroke. Another major concern is endocarditis, which is when the infection travels to the inner lining of your heart chambers or valves (endocardium).
Since your mouth is close to the opening of your respiratory system, bacteria can easily travel into your lungs, causing pneumonia, acute bronchitis, and COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease). A few studies have found that substances released from inflamed gums kill brain cells and lead to memory loss. The National Rheumatoid Arthritis Society states that people with gum disease are four times more likely to have rheumatoid arthritis. Also, osteoporosis is linked with periodontal bone loss and tooth loss.
Some types of cancer have also been linked to gum disease. Your chances of developing kidney cancer, pancreatic cancer, and blood cancers are much higher if you have poor oral health. Poor dental health can lead to kidney disease, which impacts not only them, but your heart, bones, and blood pressure.
When it comes to diabetes, not only are these individuals more susceptible to infections that lead to periodontal disease, but periodontal disease can make diabetes more difficult to control. This cycle occurs because diabetes reduces the body’s resistance to infection, and when diabetics have an infection, they have a more challenging time controlling their blood sugar levels. For people with diabetes to avoid this, they need to maintain control over their blood sugar levels and have good oral health by visiting the dentist and brushing and flossing regularly.
Poor oral health has been linked to premature birth and low birth weight. This is why expectant mothers must practice good oral hygiene. The hormonal changes that occur during pregnancy can cause a woman to develop oral infections much more easily. Also, there’s a link between poor oral health and problems with infertility in women, making it more difficult for a woman to conceive and sustain a healthy pregnancy.
Due to changing hormones at various stages of their lives, women are at risk for several oral health issues. When a woman first starts menstruating, she can have mouth sores or swollen gums during her periods. During pregnancy, increased hormones can affect the amount of saliva produced by the mouth, and frequent vomiting from morning sickness can result in tooth decay. During menopause, lower amounts of estrogen increase your risk of gum disease.
Men with poor oral hygiene are at increased risk for suffering from erectile dysfunction (ED). Chronic periodontal disease (CPD) is known to be related to ED. CPD is an infection that occurs when gums pull away from teeth, creating pockets that harbor bacteria and allow them to spread to the bone surrounding the teeth. According to the American Academy of Periodontology, men are less likely to take good care of their teeth and gums than women, which means oral and throat cancers are more common in men. The data suggests men are less likely to brush twice per day, floss regularly, and seek preventive dental care.
Good oral hygiene is vital to not only having a healthy mouth but to have overall good health. If you already practice it, that’s great! If not, it’s not too late…start today!