Also called: Oral Hygiene, Dental Hygiene
Andrew M. Sicklick, D.D.S.
Dental health basics include all steps necessary to maintain the health of a person’s teeth and mouth. Regular brushing and flossing and regular dental examinations are essential to good oral hygiene. In addition, avoiding tobacco use and eating a healthy diet can help maintain dental health over a lifetime.
Removing dental plaque from the teeth is the primary goal of a sound dental care routine. Plaque is a sticky film composed of a combination of bacteria, acid and food particles. It can lead to cavities and periodontal (gum) disease. Good oral hygiene also can prevent bad breath (halitosis), and may help prevent diseases that affect other areas of the body.
Patients are urged to consult with their dentist or dental hygienist to create an effective dental health plan. These plans are likely to include the following elements:
- Brushing. Brushing plays a crucial role in removing plaque from the teeth and helps to prevent tooth decay and gum disease. Experts recommend that people brush their teeth at least twice daily with a soft-bristled toothbrush.
- Flossing. Flossing is essential to cleaning areas of the teeth that a toothbrush cannot reach. Flossing can be performed either before or after brushing the teeth. Everyone should floss at least once a day. Flossing twice daily may be even more beneficial.
- Regular visits to a dentist. Experts urge people to schedule at least two dental examinations and professional cleanings each year.
- Eating a proper diet. Eating certain types of sugary and starchy foods, especially as snacks, contributes to the buildup of dental plaque. In addition, poor nutrition can have negative effects on oral health, including premature tooth loss and bad breath.
Additional tips for maintaining sound dental health include limiting snacking, drinking fluoridated water when possible, avoiding tobacco use, performing regular self-examinations of the mouth, making preparations for oral health care prior to or early in pregnancy, and caring for children’s teeth early in life.
About dental health
Maintaining a healthy set of teeth over a lifetime requires attention to good dental health basics. This includes regular brushing and flossing as well as visits to a dentist at least twice annually for a dental examination and professional cleaning. It also includes developing other healthy habits, such as avoiding tobacco use and eating a healthy diet.
Removing dental plaque from the teeth is the primary goal of a sound dental care routine. Plaque is a sticky film composed of a combination of bacteria, food particles and acid. Dental plaque coats teeth after meals and gradually erodes the structure of the teeth. If it is not removed, it can leave holes in tooth enamel. These holes are known as cavities.
Plaque also causes periodontal (gum) disease, a mild to severe inflammation and infection of the gums, tissues and bones supporting and anchoring teeth to the jaw. Plaque will also harden into tartar over time, requiring professional cleaning for removal.
Good oral hygiene can also prevent bad breath (halitosis) by preventing the buildup of odor-producing bacteria in the mouth.
Evidence is mounting that proper oral hygiene may also prevent diseases and other health problems that can affect other areas of the body. Such illnesses include heart attacks, strokes, poorly controlled diabetes, premature birth and low birth weight infants. People with poor dental health are also at risk for other related health disorders. For example, patients who have gum disease are more likely to develop heart disease.
People who have maladies of the teeth and gums may have a less attractive appearance, which can lead to feelings of low self-esteem. In addition, the symptoms of some immune system diseases such as HIV/AIDS may first appear as dental problems.
Creating a dental health plan
Patients are urged to consult with their dentist and dental hygienist to create an effective dental care plan. For instance, a dentist or hygienist can show a patient how to brush or floss to most effectively remove plaque and prevent decay. Using the wrong technique may injure a person’s gums.
Dental health plans are likely to include the following elements:
- Brushing. This plays a crucial role in removing plaque from the teeth. Experts recommend that people brush their teeth at least twice daily with a soft-bristled toothbrush. When brushing, people should always use toothpaste, which is also known as dentifrice. Brushing with toothpaste containing fluoride makes the structure of the teeth less vulnerable to decay. This occurs through remineralization, the process in which eroded areas of tooth enamel are rebuilt before a cavity can form.
- Flossing. This is an essential part of removing plaque between teeth that can lead to tooth decay and gum disease. Flossing helps clean areas of the teeth that a toothbrush cannot reach and also cleans debris from below the gumline. Flossing can be performed either before or after brushing the teeth. Everyone should floss at least once a day in addition to brushing twice daily, according to the American Dental Association. Some experts recommend flossing twice per day. A child’s teeth need to be flossed once the child develops teeth that touch.
- Regular visits to a dentist. Experts urge people to schedule at least two dental examinations and professional cleanings each year. This allows a dentist to identify signs of tooth decay and gum disease. Signs of other illnesses (e.g., nutritional deficiencies, immune system disorders, injury, cancer, other diseases or infections) may also be apparent during an examination. Most problems can be treated more effectively when caught early.
- Eating a proper diet. Diet has a profound effect on oral health. Eating certain foods containing simple or complex sugars (e.g., bread, cake, cereal, candy, soda) contributes to oral health problems such as tooth decay and gum disease. Poor nutrition can lead to premature tooth loss and bad breath (halitosis). People are urged to eat a well-balanced diet rich in minerals and vitamins. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration recommends eating 5 to 10 servings of fruits and vegetables daily. This helps to stimulate saliva production and the remineralization of teeth.
A dental care plan may have to be updated as life circumstances change. For example, women who are pregnant may experience pregnancy gingivitis, a temporary inflammation of the gums that may cause the gums to bleed during brushing. Patients diagnosed with diabetes have an increased risk of gum disease, which can make it even more difficult to control blood sugar levels.
Patients with certain medical conditions, such as arthritis, may need to use an electric toothbrush or other special devices to make brushing easier. For example, patients with arthritis may benefit from attaching the toothbrush to the hand with an elastic band or adding a sponge onto the handle to make it bigger. People beginning to use dentures will also need to alter their health care routine to include care of the dentures.
Additional dental health tips
Other tips for maintaining sound dental health include:
- Limit snacking. When people eat foods containing simple or complex sugars (e.g., bread, candy, cookies, sodas), bacteria in dental plaque begin to feed on the food particles. This creates an acid that eats away at the enamel of a person’s teeth for 20 minutes or more each time a person eats. This erosion is the major cause of dental problems such as tooth decay and periodontal (gum) disease. Frequent snacking is particularly bad for oral health, because the cycle of enamel destruction repeats with each snacking session. In addition, people do not commonly brush their teeth after snacking. Brushing after snacking will help to interrupt the enamel destruction cycle.
- Drink fluoridated water when possible. Many communities in the United States add fluoride to public water systems to help protect teeth against decay. People who live in communities that do not add fluoride to the water are urged to consult with a dentist about whether they should receive fluoride from alternate sources (such as fluoride supplements, treatments, gels, mouthwash or toothpastes).
- Do not use tobacco. Smoking or use of smokeless tobacco can significantly impact a person’s oral health. Oral cancer and periodontal disease are among the most serious oral health problems associated with tobacco use. Other conditions associated with tobacco use include tooth decay, bad breath (halitosis) and stains on the teeth.
- Perform a self-examination of the mouth weekly. Patients are often able to identify changes in their mouths that may require the attention of a dentist. These include swollen gums, chipped or discolored teeth, and sores or lesions on the gums, cheeks or tongue. Self-examinations are particularly important for tobacco users so they can detect early signs of oral cancer, such as swelling, numbness, sores or lumps in the mouth. In addition, diseases that affect the immune system, such as AIDS and diabetes, often first become apparent when mouth sores and other oral problems appear.
- Replace toothbrushregularly. A toothbrush should be replaced every three months or whenever the bristles start to wear down. Worn bristles do not effectively clean the teeth.
- Make preparations for oral health care prior to or early in pregnancy. Whenever possible, women should have any necessary dental work performed prior to pregnancy, or between the fourth and sixth months of pregnancy.
- Begin care for children’s teeth early. From the time an infant is born, proper care of the gums and teeth is an essential part of maintaining good oral health. Dental care is important even before the teeth begin to show. After feedings, parents are urged to run a damp washcloth over the infant’s gums to keep bacteria from building up. Once teeth begin to appear, they can be brushed with a soft children’s toothbrush. Or, gauze can be rubbed over the teeth. This should be done at the end of each day. Once the child develops teeth that touch, daily flossing is also necessary. Sealants can be applied by a dentist onto permanent molars to help prevent tooth decay.
Questions for your doctor about dental health
Preparing questions in advance can help patients to have more meaningful discussions with their dentist regarding their conditions. Patients may wish to ask their doctor the following questions related to dental health:
- If I cannot brush or floss my teeth right after a meal, what steps can I take to reduce potential damage to my teeth?
- What brushing method do you suggest – up and down, side to side or back and forth?
- How will I know if I am brushing and flossing correctly? Can you demonstrate?
- When should my child start brushing and flossing?
- What should I look for during an oral self-examination?
- How often should I see the dentist and the dental hygienist?
- What foods should I consume to ensure a well-balanced diet?
- How often can I safely eat sweets and other foods I enjoy?
- How can I find out if my water is treated with fluoride?
- What resources are available to help me quit using tobacco?