If you were asked to identify the number one mouth problem affecting dental health, what would you name? Toothaches? Poor hygiene? Jaw joint issues?
Believe it or not, the top issue among 15,000 respondents in a recent American Dental Association (ADA) survey was dry mouth. A full one-third of the respondents had experienced chronic lack of normal saliva flow; difficulty biting and tooth pain, took second and third place, respectively.
We’ve all experienced the discomfort of temporary dry mouth when we first wake up in the morning or after eating certain foods. But chronic dry mouth is much more serious with long-term effects on a person’s teeth and gum health. This is because among its other important properties, saliva helps neutralize enamel-softening mouth acid and restores minerals to enamel after acid contact. Without sufficient saliva flow you’re much more susceptible to dental disease.
While there are several causes for dry mouth, perhaps the most common is as a side effect to at least five hundred known medications. Because older people tend to take more medications than other age groups, dry mouth is an acute problem among people over 60 (a major factor for why dry mouth took the survey’s top health problem spot).
You can help ease dry mouth from medications by first asking your doctor about switching to alternative medications that don’t affect saliva production. If not, be sure to drink more water during the day and especially when you take your oral medication (a few sips before and after).
You can help your dry mouth symptoms from any cause by drinking more water, limiting your consumption of alcohol or caffeine, and avoiding tobacco products. You can also use substances that stimulate saliva flow—a common one is xylitol, an alcohol-based sugar that’s used as a sweetener in certain gums and candies. Not only does xylitol boost saliva flow it also inhibits the growth of bacteria and thus decreases your risk of disease.
And speaking of reducing bacteria and their effects, don’t neglect daily brushing and flossing. These habits, along with regular dental cleanings and checkups, will benefit you just as much as your efforts to reduce dry mouth in avoiding dental disease.
Dental cleanings are an important part of regular dental office visits. Performed by a dental hygienist or dentist, cleanings serve two purposes: to remove bacterial plaque and calculus (hardened deposits of plaque) from tooth surfaces missed during daily brushing and flossing; and to remove stains that can dull your smile.
There are different degrees of cleaning, including root planing that removes plaque and calculus deep below the gum line, usually for patients affected by periodontal (gum) disease. For patients in good oral health, the basic cleaning approach is known as prophylaxis, a term derived from the Greek for guarding or preventing beforehand. The techniques used in a prophylaxis remove both “coronal” (tooth surfaces visible above the gum line) plaque and staining, providing both therapeutic and cosmetic benefits.
A typical prophylaxis includes a procedure known as scaling. Hygienists use special instruments known as scalers to remove plaque and calculus by hand, or an ultrasonic device that vibrates plaque loose and is flushed away with water. The procedure removes that rough coating you often feel as you rub your tongue against your teeth, leaving the tooth surfaces feeling smooth.
Tooth polishing is a subsequent procedure to scaling that also removes plaque and surface stains. Polishing is carried out with a motorized instrument with a rubber cup in which a polishing (or “prophy”) paste is contained. The hygienist moves the rapidly rotating cup filled with the paste over the tooth surface to remove plaque and stains. The end result is a highly smooth surface and a much shinier appearance.
People with dental insurance plans are often concerned tooth polishing may be viewed strictly as a cosmetic procedure, and thus not fully qualify for benefits. This should not be the case if coded properly: tooth polishing is part of the overall prophylaxis to remove plaque and staining. The primary purpose is therapeutic and preventive; the cosmetic effect is a by-product. Most dental plans will cover one or two prophylaxes (scaling and tooth polishing) a year, but there are variations so individuals should check their plans.
If you would like more information on dental cleaning, please contact us or schedule an appointment for a consultation. You can also learn more about this topic by reading the Dear Doctor magazine article “Tooth Polishing.”
Are bleeding gums something you should be concerned about? Dear Doctor magazine recently posed that question to Dr. Travis Stork, an emergency room physician and host of the syndicated TV show The Doctors. He answered with two questions of his own: “If you started bleeding from your eyeball, would you seek medical attention?” Needless to say, most everyone would. “So,” he asked, “why is it that when we bleed all the time when we floss that we think it’s no big deal?” As it turns out, that’s an excellent question — and one that’s often misunderstood.
First of all, let’s clarify what we mean by “bleeding all the time.” As many as 90 percent of people occasionally experience bleeding gums when they clean their teeth — particularly if they don’t do it often, or are just starting a flossing routine. But if your gums bleed regularly when you brush or floss, it almost certainly means there’s a problem. Many think bleeding gums is a sign they are brushing too hard; this is possible, but unlikely. It’s much more probable that irritated and bleeding gums are a sign of periodontal (gum) disease.
How common is this malady? According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, nearly half of allÂ Americans over age 30 have mild, moderate or severe gum disease — and that number increases to 70.1 percent for those over 65! Periodontal disease can occur when a bacteria-rich biofilm in the mouth (also called plaque) is allowed to build up on tooth and gum surfaces. Plaque causes the gums to become inflamed, as the immune system responds to the bacteria. Eventually, this can cause gum tissue to pull away from the teeth, forming bacteria-filled “pockets” under the gum surface. If left untreated, it can lead to more serious infection, and even tooth loss.
What should you do if your gums bleed regularly when brushing or flossing? The first step is to come in for a thorough examination. In combination with a regular oral exam (and possibly x-rays or other diagnostic tests), a simple (and painless) instrument called a periodontal probe can be used to determine how far any periodontal disease may have progressed. Armed with this information, we can determine the most effective way to fight the battle against gum disease.
Above all, don’t wait too long to come in for an exam! As Dr. Stork notes, bleeding gums are “a sign that things aren’t quite right.” Â If you would like more information about bleeding gums, please contact us or schedule an appointment. You can read more in the Dear Doctor magazine article “Bleeding Gums.” You can read the entire interview with Dr. Travis Stork in Dear Doctor magazine.
Saliva probably doesn’t rate high on your amazement meter. You’re more likely to notice its absence and the dry irritation that results.
But you might be more impressed with this unsung bodily fluid if you knew all the things it does. It’s definitely a multi-tasker, performing a number of jobs (including aiding in digestion) that not only keep your oral health on track, but your general well-being too. And there are even new testing methods where saliva may even tell us when you’re not doing so well.
Here are 3 more tasks your saliva is doing for your mouth right now that truly makes it amazing.
Cleansing. Your teeth’s chewing action shreds food so it’s easier to digest. But that also leaves behind tiny particles in your mouth. Bacteria feast on these particles (especially carbohydrates like sugar) and produce acid as a byproduct, which can increase your risk of tooth decay. Saliva serves as a kind of “rinse cycle” for your mouth, helping to wash a good bit of these errant particles down your throat and away from hungry bacteria.
Defense. Speaking of bacteria, your mouth is home to millions of them. While most are harmless or even beneficial, a fraction can harm your teeth and gums. Saliva is your first line of defense, emitting an antibody known as Immunoglobulin A that targets these bacteria. Saliva also produces an antibacterial substance called lyzozyme that prevents bacteria from growing.
Enamel Protection. Although it’s the strongest substance in the body, your teeth’s enamel can’t withstand the effects of mouth acid, the by-product of bacterial feeding and growth. Acid levels naturally rise after eating; but even this sudden rise can begin the process of demineralization where minerals in enamel dissolve. Saliva saves the day by first neutralizing the acid and restoring the mouth’s normal pH in about thirty minutes to an hour. It also helps restore minerals in enamel, a process called remineralization. It’s all in a day’s work for this remarkable fluid.
If you would like more information on the importance of saliva to oral health, please contact us or schedule an appointment for a consultation. You can also learn more about this topic by reading the Dear Doctor magazine article “Saliva: How it is used to Diagnose Disease.”
Here’s a sobering statistic: you have a 50/50 chance over your lifetime for developing periodontal (gum) disease. And it’s much more serious than irritated gums: if not treated aggressively you could experience bone loss, which can not only lead to tooth loss but actually increases your risk of heart attack and stroke.
Initially, you may not notice any symptoms unless you know what to look for: mainly red and puffy gums that frequently bleed during brushing and flossing. As the infection advances into the underlying support structures that hold teeth in place you may also notice receding gums (moving away from your teeth causing them to look longer), pus around the gums or lingering bad breath or taste. And one or more loose teeth are a definite sign the supporting structures have weakened severely.
So, how does gum disease happen? It starts with bacteria. Your mouth contains millions of these and other microorganisms, most of which are friendly and even beneficial. Unfortunately, a fraction of them can infect and harm tissues like the gums and underlying bone. Your mouth’s defenses can normally handle them if their numbers remain low. But a bacterial population explosion can quickly overwhelm those defenses.
Bacteria are like any other life form: they need a secure environment and food. Disease-causing bacteria establish the former by utilizing proteins and other components of saliva to form a sticky biofilm on teeth known as plaque. Within the safe haven of dental plaque bacteria quickly multiply and form a complex and concentrated ecosystem feeding on remnant food particles, especially sugar and other carbohydrates.
The key to gum disease prevention (as well as treatment) is to deprive bacteria of their home and food source by removing plaque and its more hardened form calculus (tartar). You can manage plaque buildup by brushing and flossing daily, seeing your dentist regularly for cleanings to remove any remaining hard-to-reach plaque and calculus, and eating a nutritious diet with fewer sweets or other carbohydrate-rich snacks.
You can further lower your disease risk by avoiding smoking and other tobacco products and moderating your consumption of alcohol. And be sure to see your dentist as soon as possible if you notice any signs of infection with your gums. Taking these steps can help you avoid gum disease’s destructiveness and help preserve a healthy and attractive smile.
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