Tooth decay can occur when acid and bacteria are produced from the plaque that builds up on teeth. Such buildup erodes the tooth’s enamel and can lead to holes (cavities), dental abscesses and gum disease—labelled by the National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research (NIDCR) as the most common cause of tooth loss in adults. Visiting a dentist may lead to fillings, a root canal or a deep cleaning treatment, but it is important to remember that oral hygiene starts from home. Here are some things to consider for a mouth that looks (and smells) healthy.
Simply keeping your entire mouth clean and healthy can help prevent most dental problems. Ensure that you are brushing your teeth for two minutes, at least twice a day, with fluoride toothpaste. Although it may feel odd at first, brushing the gums, tongue and the roof of the mouth will help to eliminate bad breath (just don’t scrub too hard as this may cause more harm than good). Daily flossing will also keep hard-to-reach areas clean and healthy.
Consuming large quantities of sugary foods and drinks causes the bacteria in plaque to produce acids, which attack tooth enamel. Eating a balanced diet and limiting snacks between meals can help to decrease the risk of tooth decay and gum disease. Chewing sugar-free gum and drinking water after meals can also help to reduce the effects of the acid.
Smoking can lead to tooth staining, gum disease, tooth loss and oral cancer, and these risks are also being linked to alcohol abuse. Substances such as nicotine and tar can stain the teeth yellow and produce copious amounts of bacterial plaque. Sadly, pigments from drinks such as tea and coffee can also stain teeth over time.
Knowing the facts
Changes to your lifestyle may be introduced too late. Whilst prevention is a huge focus in oral healthcare, once tooth decay has progressed, fluoridation will stimulate little improvement. Knowing the signs of tooth decay and gum disease can help your dentist to treat the problem before it becomes more serious.
You may hear tooth decay being called dental caries by your dentist, but regardless of technicalities, it needs to be treated quickly to prevent further damage. As the tooth’s dentin and enamel break down, a cavity is created and a filling may be needed. It can take about three years for premature dental caries on the surface of a tooth to become a large cavity that reaches the pulp, with early tooth decay being much easier and cheaper to treat.
Tooth decay may not cause pain, but symptoms include:
- Tooth sensitivity
- Grey, brown or black spots on the teeth
- Bad breath
- An unpleasant taste in the mouth
The early stage of gum disease is known as gingivitis, signposted by bleeding gums and bad breath. If gingivitis is not treated, periodontitis can develop—a condition where the tissues that support and hold the teeth in place are affected. Eventually, the bone in your jaw may become damaged and small spaces between the gums and teeth will open up, causing them to become loose and fall out. Mild cases of gum disease can usually be treated by maintaining an oral hygiene routine or having your teeth cleaned by a hygienist. Eventually, however, surgery may be needed.
Gum disease can lead to:
- Swollen and sore gums
- Gum abscesses (a collection of pus)
- Receding gums
- Loose teeth
- Loss of teeth
Bridges & crowns
A bridge is a fixed replacement for a missing tooth that is made by taking an impression of the surrounding, supporting teeth. A crown is a type of cap that completely covers a real tooth. Made from either metal or porcelain and metal, crowns can be fitted when a tooth is broken, decayed or damaged to make it look better.
A filling may be needed to restore a tooth that has been damaged by decay back to its normal function and shape, whilst at the same time sealing off the spaces that invite further bacteria. The process involves removing the decayed tooth material, cleaning the affected area and then filling the cavity. Materials used for fillings include a composite resin, porcelain, gold and an amalgam (an alloy of mercury, silver, copper, tin and sometimes zinc).
Root canal treatment (endodontics) is a procedure that targets infection at the centre of the tooth—its root canal system. The teeth’s roots actually extend up into the bone of the jaw, anchoring the tooth in place. This system contains the soft dental pulp that can become damaged by a bacterial infection in severe cases of tooth decay. During a root canal procedure, either the infected pulp is removed, cleaned and filled, or the entire tooth may be extracted.
The symptoms of pulp infection may disappear as the pulp dies and the tooth appears healed. In actual fact, this means that the infection has spread through the root canal system.
Symptoms of pulp infection include:
- Pain when biting, chewing, eating or drinking.
- A loose tooth.
- Swelling of the gum near the affected tooth.
- Pus oozing from the affected tooth.
- Facial swelling.
- The tooth becoming a darker colour.
Healthy teeth hacks
Try these lifestyle hacks to improve your oral hygiene:
- If you do drink sugary drinks or alcohol, try drinking through a straw to reduce contact between the sugars and tooth enamel.
- Do not rinse your mouth out with water after brushing your teeth—leaving fluoride residue on your teeth can help protect the enamel.
- Make ‘detergent’ foods the final thing that you eat in a meal—crisp foods such as celery help to strip and clean the teeth as they’re eaten.
- Wait at least 30 minutes after consuming sugary foods or beverages before brushing your teeth as enamel is more susceptible to damage when the mouth is acidic.
Did you know?
Dentures actually need to be replaced every 5 to 7 years, as they wear down and stain, just like natural teeth
This article was originally published in Live to 100 with Dr Hilary Jones. Read the digital edition, here.