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We rely on our teeth to chew, bite and grind our food as well as to help us speak and have a smile, which is why it’s reassuring that a few simple actions will ensure that our precious teeth will last a lifetime.
With everything else going on in our lives and the world, it may not seem important to take good care of our teeth. However, your oral health is deeply connected to your physical health. The way to create and maintain your oral health is to keep your teeth and gums healthy. I’m a dentist so I know that bacteria are the enemy and removal of plaque is the key to avoiding cavities. The bacteria in plaque feed on the sugar from our diet, then produces an acid, which bores holes — cavities — in our teeth. Inflamed gums harbor plaque, too. From childhood to old age, taking good care of our teeth will have a positive impact on our overall health.
Here are some ways to keep your teeth, gums, tongue and mouth healthy over the years:
It seems obvious, but brushing is important and so is brushing correctly. I recommend brushing twice daily. Commit to no-rush brushing; plan to brush for two minutes each time. I tell my patients to focus on all areas of the mouth and along the visible gum line. Light pressure and good technique matters more than scrubbing on the teeth and gums. Avoid a death grip on the toothbrush. Instead, hold it with your finger tips or like a pencil. Use a toothbrush with soft bristles, which can get into more nooks and crannies than one with stiff bristles. Replace your brush every three or four months, or when the bristles fray or mat. If you have dexterity or arthritis issues, use an electric toothbrush. You can brush your tongue, too, which helps to prevent bad breath. Use your toothbrush or a plastic tongue scraper.
2. Use fluoride toothpaste.
Spit out the toothpaste when you’ve finished brushing but don’t rinse your mouth. That way, the fluoride in the toothpaste will have more time to do its work. Also, if your gums are irritated despite brushing well, you may find relief by switching to a toothpaste without SLS, a foaming ingredient.
3. Use floss.
Yes, we dentists and hygienists can tell when you don’t floss because your gums will be inflamed or sore. In fact, if your gums bleed, it’s a sign that you need to floss more, not less, and you should see your dentist. Experiment with different types of floss to see what works for you. Pull off enough floss to be able to hold it securely, then gently wiggle it between your teeth so it can clean out potential cavity spots. You’re not limited to flossing at night and you don’t have to be in front of the bathroom mirror; find a time and location that’s convenient, such as watching TV after dinner. A floss holder or dental picks are better than not flossing at all, but a string of floss is the most effective method. Water jets don’t replace flossing and brushing, although they are a good addition to your cleaning arsenal.
4. Consider sealants for your children.
A sealant is a protective plastic coating that shields children’s molars. Sealants are very effective at preventing decay because the chewing surfaces of our back teeth have deep, narrow grooves that young children may find difficult to clean. I recommend sealing the molars when they come in at about age 6 and when the second set comes in at about age 12.
5. Eat well.
When you eat fewer sugars and more high-nutrient foods, the bacteria in your mouth and stomach are going to be healthier, and you’ll probably develop fewer cavities. You’ll also have more energy and be physically healthier.
6. Drink water.
If you drink water after a meal or snack, it will help to rinse sugars off your teeth, reducing the likelihood of cavities. Water also helps with dry mouth. I tell my patients experiencing dry mouth that they are at higher risk for cavities, and that they’ve got to work a little harder than their neighbors just to stay even. Drinking more water may help, along with checking one’s systemic health and the possible side effects of medications.
7. Bring your baby.
The American Dental Association recommends that a child’s first dental visit occur between their first tooth and their first birthday. Meanwhile, please avoid letting your baby fall asleep sucking on a bottle; it can lead to severe tooth decay. At your young child’s visit, we’ll check for proper tooth development and early signs of cavities.
8. See me during pregnancy.
Pregnant women experience fluctuating hormones, which may lead to gingivitis or gum issues. Be sure you get your teeth cleaned and your overall oral health checked during your pregnancy.
9. Let me help.
It breaks my heart when people are afraid to go to the dentist. Waiting until forced to visit because of major issues will mean serious treatment must be initiated, which reinforces a reluctant patient’s sense of not wanting to go to the dentist. It’s best to schedule regular visits for prevention and a lower level of care.
When you need more information on tooth and gum issues, ask your dentist or visit kp.org. Together, we can keep your mouth — and you — healthy.
Dr. Kregg DeLange is the dentist at Kaiser Permanente’s Valley River Dental Office. For more information, visit kp.org/lane.