You've been brushing your teeth since you were big enough to look over the bathroom sink: now you brush and floss every day. You do it because you know it's important — but do you know why?
It's because your teeth and gums have enemies: oral bacteria in particular, the major cause for tooth decay and periodontal (gum) disease. The vehicle for these infections is a thin-film of food particles on tooth surfaces called plaque.
Daily brushing removes plaque from broad tooth surfaces, while flossing removes it from between teeth. If you don't brush or floss every day — or you aren't effective enough — then plaque becomes a haven for bacteria which then produce high levels of acid that soften and erode enamel. Bacterial plaque can also trigger gum disease: gingivitis (inflamed gum tissues) can begin in just a few days of not brushing and flossing.
You could avoid these diseases and their high treatment costs with an effective, daily hygiene regimen. There are things you can start doing right now to improve your efforts: be sure to hold your toothbrush (soft, multi-tufted is best for most people) at a 45-degree angle to the gum line and gently scrub or wiggle the bristles across the teeth; cover all tooth surfaces on both sides of the teeth — about two minutes of brushing. Be sure to use a fluoride toothpaste to boost enamel strength and don't apply too much pressure when you brush to avoid damaging your gums.
With flossing it's best to hold a small amount of string between fingers from each hand and work it gently between the gaps of each tooth. You then wrap the floss around each tooth in the form of a “C” and gently move up and down three or four times.
You can check to see if you're performing these tasks adequately by running your tongue across your teeth — they should feel smooth and a little squeaky. The real test, though, is during your next checkup. Hopefully we'll find the hygiene habits you've been practicing your whole life are helping you keep your teeth healthy and disease-free.
What you eat (and how often you eat it) is a major factor in the ongoing battle to prevent tooth decay. High levels of sugar or similar carbohydrates in your diet could encourage the growth of bacteria that cause tooth decay. Constantly sipping on acidic beverages like sodas or sports drinks can lead to enamel erosion.
You may be well aware of the kinds of foods that contribute to tooth decay. But did you know some foods can actually protect us from this damaging disease? Here are 4 kinds of foods believed to inhibit tooth decay.
Cheese. This food formed from milk is rich in calcium and has a stimulating effect on saliva. By eating a little cheese after a sugary snack, the increase in saliva can help neutralize the acid produced by the bacteria feeding on the sugar; the added calcium will also strengthen tooth enamel.
Fibrous plant foods. Beans, peanuts and leafy vegetables are rich in fiber and many require vigorous chewing. This in turn stimulates saliva flow, which as previously noted helps to neutralize high levels of acid.
Black and green teas. Beverages brewed from these plants are rich in polyphenols and flavonoids, providing an antioxidant effect on cells. Black tea also contains fluoride, which helps strengthen tooth enamel.
Chocolate. There’s some evidence that cocoa (from which chocolate is derived) may have some properties that inhibit tooth decay. But there is a catch — this evidence is based on unrefined cocoa, without the addition of any sugar. The high levels of sugar in processed chocolate negate this effect. Sorry chocolate lovers!
Of course, any of these and similar foods (like cow’s milk) should be considered complements to a comprehensive prevention approach that includes daily oral hygiene, limits on sugar and acidic food consumption and regular dental cleanings and checkups.
If you would like more information on preventing tooth decay, 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 “Nutrition & Oral Health.”
Fans of the legendary rock band Steely Dan received some sad news a few months ago: Co-founder Walter Becker died unexpectedly at the age of 67. The cause of his death was an aggressive form of esophageal cancer. This disease, which is related to oral cancer, may not get as much attention as some others. Yet Becker's name is the latest addition to the list of well-known people whose lives it has cut short—including actor Humphrey Bogart, writer Christopher Hitchens, and TV personality Richard Dawson.
As its name implies, esophageal cancer affects the esophagus: the long, hollow tube that joins the throat to the stomach. Solid and liquid foods taken into the mouth pass through this tube on their way through the digestive system. Worldwide, it is the sixth most common cause of cancer deaths.
Like oral cancer, esophageal cancer generally does not produce obvious symptoms in its early stages. As a result, by the time these diseases are discovered, both types of cancer are most often in their later stages, and often prove difficult to treat successfully. Another similarity is that dentists can play an important role in oral and esophageal cancer detection.
Many people see dentists more often than any other health care professionals—at recommended twice-yearly checkups, for example. During routine examinations, we check the mouth, tongue, neck and throat for possible signs of oral cancer. These may include lumps, swellings, discolorations, and other abnormalities—which, fortunately, are most often harmless. Other symptoms, including persistent coughing or hoarseness, difficulty swallowing, and unexplained weight loss, are common to both oral and esophageal cancer. Chest pain, worsening heartburn or indigestion and gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) can also alert us to the possibility of esophageal cancer.
Cancer may be a scary subject—but early detection and treatment can offer many people the best possible outcome. If you have questions about oral or esophageal cancer, call our office or schedule a consultation. You can learn more in the Dear Doctor magazine article “Oral Cancer.”
Among our most common diseases, tooth decay can be a big problem at any age: in the U.S., one in four children 5 and under has some form of the disease, as well as ninety percent of those 60 and older — and a quarter of those have suffered complete tooth loss.
Fortunately, we now know what needs to be done on a regular basis to prevent tooth decay. Unfortunately, many are uninformed about all they need to do to lower their risk.
Here, then, are 5 questions to ask yourself to see if you’re on the right prevention path or not.
Do I brush and floss daily? If not, you’re aiding and abetting the “enemy” — bacteria that cause tooth decay. Bacteria that make up plaque feed on any food remnants that adhere to tooth surfaces. Brushing at least once daily (twice is better) removes plaque, while flossing removes plaque between teeth that can’t be reached with a brush. Removing plaque will lower your mouth’s acid levels that cause a loss of minerals to the enamel surface.
Do I use the proper techniques for brushing and flossing? While it’s important to establish daily hygiene habits, if you’re not performing them properly you won’t realize the full benefit from your efforts. But don’t dismay — we can train you in the proper techniques for brushing and flossing your teeth.
Do I use fluoride toothpaste? This naturally-occurring chemical strengthens tooth enamel and makes it more resistant to decay. You can increase fluoride’s absorption rate into enamel by using hygiene products that contain it.
Do I constantly snack between meals? Saliva neutralizes acid remaining in the mouth after eating in about 30 to 60 minutes. If you’re constantly snacking or sipping acidic beverages, however, saliva can’t do this effectively. It’s best to limit snacking to a few, specific times and restrict acidic beverages to meal time only.
Do I visit the dentist for cleanings and checkups? While brushing and flossing reduce plaque, it can’t remove it from hard-to-reach places below the gums or harder deposits (calculus) that have developed. A professional cleaning twice a year removes the plaque and calculus left from daily hygiene. We can also gauge the health of your teeth and determine if tooth decay or gum disease may be developing.
If you would like more information on tooth decay prevention, 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 Decay: How to Assess Your Risk.”
Not coincidentally, GERD Awareness Week overlaps with the Thanksgiving holiday. Many people get acid indigestion from time to time, especially during this month of major feasting, but if you suffer from more than occasional acid reflux, you may be among the 20 percent of U.S. adults with gastroesophageal reflux disease, or GERD. For many individuals, painful heartburn often accompanies acid reflux; however, for others there are few or no symptoms. In the latter situation, dentists may be the first to suspect GERD based on what we see during a regular dental exam.
With GERD, acid washes up from the stomach into the esophagus or throat, and even into the mouth. If the condition is not treated, the repeated contact with acid can lead to ulcers and cause pre-cancerous cell changes along the esophagus lining. In addition, the acids can eat away at tooth enamel and harm the soft tissues of the mouth, which may result in severely eroded teeth and chronic gum disease. Unfortunately for those who have relatively minor symptoms, GERD may go undetected until serious damage has been done. For this reason, diagnosis and treatment of GERD is very important.
You can play a big role in managing your GERD symptoms. Besides taking any over-the-counter or prescription medication your doctor recommends, you can help control acid reflux by eating smaller meals, avoiding foods and beverages that trigger heartburn, refraining from eating within three hours of bedtime, and resisting the urge to recline right after eating. Also, quitting smoking and taking off extra weight can help greatly.
Further, it is important to take steps to protect your teeth if you suffer from GERD. Here are some tips:
- Neutralize acid by chewing on an antacid tablet or rinsing your mouth with half a teaspoon of baking soda mixed into a cup of water.
- Don't brush your teeth immediately after an episode of acid reflux, as this could damage the weakened tooth enamel. Instead, rinse your mouth with water to dilute the acid and wait an hour before you brush to allow your saliva to rebuild the minerals on the surface of your teeth.
- Schedule regular dental visits to monitor the health of your teeth and gums. Depending on your specific situation, we may recommend a particular treatment to help strengthen your teeth.
Our goal is to help you preserve your teeth for life, so be sure to tell us if you have been diagnosed with GERD or any other medical condition. If you have questions, contact us or schedule an appointment for a consultation. You can learn more in the Dear Doctor magazine articles “GERD and Oral Health” and “Tooth Decay: How to Assess Your Risk.”
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