Dental Health

People don’t think much about their teeth and gums until a problem occurs, like a toothache or bleeding gums. Proper dental care and oral hygiene are crucial for both dental health and overall health and well-being. 

Proper care includes brushing and flossing teeth and gums at least twice daily to protect against tooth decay and dental check-ups at least twice a year. The check-up will include a cleaning, x-rays, and an exam to check for cavities, tooth and gum problems, and signs of oral cancer. 

Following a healthy lifestyle is also essential for optimal dental health. This means eating a plant-based diet, avoiding sugar-sweetened foods and drinks, cutting back on alcohol, and not smoking. 

Good dental health can protect against periodontal (gum) disease. Gum disease is a bacterial infection that begins with gum inflammation (gingivitis) and can advance to bone damage and tooth loss (periodontitis). 

Left unchecked, gum disease also can increase your risk for type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, stroke, and complications during pregnancy. Research also suggests possible links to other conditions, including kidney disease, rheumatoid arthritis, Parkinson’s disease, and cancer. 

Common dental issues include:

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Cracked, chipped, or broken teeth

Teeth can be chipped, cracked, or broken from an injury, biting into hard foods, or chewing on items like pens. Clenching your teeth or grinding them during sleep also can damage them. 

Damaged teeth can lead to pulpitis or inflammation of the tooth’s pulp—the blood vessels that nourish the tooth, and the nerves that enable sensation. Pulpitis can cause pain, especially when chewing, making teeth sensitive to hot, cold, sweet, or sour foods. 

If you notice sudden tooth sensitivity or discomfort, see your dentist immediately. 

There are several options for fixing damaged teeth. Dentists can usually repair small chips with white resin. Otherwise, you may need a veneer, crown, or root canal treatment. If a tooth is damaged beyond repair, it may need to be removed.

Veneers. Veneers are custom-made shells placed over the surface of a tooth to hide damage. They are made from porcelain or composite resin, although porcelain generally provides the best-looking and longest-lasting veneer.

Crown. If a substantial section of a tooth has been damaged or broken, the dentist may need to cover the area with a crown, a cap placed on top of the tooth. Crowns are made of resin, ceramic, metal, or some combination of these. The dentist reshapes the damaged tooth and then makes an impression or mold of the tooth to create the crown. A temporary crown is applied until the custom-made crown is created in the dental lab. 

Root canal. If the tooth’s pulp has been irreversibly damaged, your dentist will recommend a multi-step process to remove the pulp and repair the damaged tooth, commonly known as a root canal. The procedure is performed by an endodontist.

Toothache

Common dental pain problems include toothaches and sensitive teeth. They develop when the center of a tooth, called the pulp, becomes exposed by tooth decay or a crack or break in the tooth. Teeth also can become sensitive as a result of gum erosion due to aging. Toothaches and sensitivity can make it difficult to chew and painful to eat or drink cold foods and liquids. 

See your dentist immediately about a toothache or tooth sensitivity to address the problem. If you experience a toothache and can’t see your dentist right away, ease the pain with an over-the-counter pain reliever and apply ice to the affected side of your face. Rinsing your mouth with warm salt water, especially if your gums are sore, also can help. 

Some toothpaste brands contain ingredients that help reduce tooth sensitivity. Ask your dentist for a recommendation.

Tooth decay

Tooth decay is caused by certain types of bacteria in your mouth. Fed by sugars, these bacteria release acidic waste products, which can dissolve the enamel, or outer layer of your teeth. If not stopped at this stage, decay can penetrate to the dentin, the layer under the enamel, and even reach the pulp in the tooth’s center. Decay is most likely to occur in crevices of molars or between teeth, where both sugars and bacteria can collect. 

The earliest sign of tooth decay is a white spot on a tooth, but sometimes this can be seen only on a dental X-ray. With early decay, you don’t have any other symptoms, such as tooth pain and sensitivity, because the tooth’s nerve endings are not yet affected. These problems occur in later stages as the decay reaches the tooth’s pulp.

At the white-spot stage, decay often can be stalled and sometimes reversed with fluoride, which helps strengthen tooth enamel. (Fluoride also can protect teeth from future decay.) Most toothpaste and some mouth rinses contain fluoride.

Your dentist can offer highly-concentrated fluoride treatments. The fluoride is applied to the tooth as a gel or varnish or given as a mouth rinse. Another treatment option is a protective sealant that your dentist applies to the tooth to block bacteria and acids from causing further damage. 

If early decay isn’t stopped, the white spots will turn brown as more enamel erodes, and small holes (cavities) form. To treat cavities, your dentist removes the decay in the tooth and shapes the area to be filled with a composite resin and silver amalgam. 

Unless tooth decay is stopped by treatment, it will continue to advance through the enamel to the dentin. Dentin is more vulnerable to decay than enamel, so decay progresses faster once it reaches this level. Cavities that affect dentin usually require a large filling or a crown.

What is periodontal disease?

Periodontal disease—or gum disease—is a bacterial infection of the gums, bone, and other structures that stabilize the teeth. There are two types: gingivitis and periodontitis.

Gingivitis is the mildest form, where inflammation caused by plaque and tartar build up causes gums to become swollen, red, and prone to bleeding during tooth brushing

Bacterial infection that spreads beyond the gums turns into more severe periodontitis, which requires a series of dental visits and sometimes treatment by a periodontist (gum specialist).

Gingivitis

Gingivitis is inflammation of the gums and the most common, and mildest, form of periodontal disease, commonly known as gum disease

Gum disease begins when bacteria form plaque, a sticky film on the teeth. If not removed through daily brushing and flossing, plaque hardens into tartar that can develop above and below the gumline. The bacteria in plaque and tartar cause gum inflammation or gingivitis.

Symptoms of gingivitis include swollengums that appear darker than usual and bleed during tooth brushing. 

Gingivitis can be easily treated with proper dental care. Brush twice a day for two minutes at a time and floss every night. (Research has found that electric toothbrushes are better than manual ones at removing plaque and reducing the risk of gingivitis.) Use a mouthwash designed to combat gingivitis. Biannual dental cleanings can remove plaque and tartar from under and around the gumline, giving you a fresh start.

Saltwater rinses also help if you are experiencing gum tenderness or swelling. Mix one-half teaspoon of salt in a glass of warm water, swish for 20 to 30 seconds and spit. Once or twice a day is acceptable in the short term, but be aware that long-term use of saltwater rinses can erode tooth enamel. 

If left untreated, gingivitis can lead to more severe periodontitis.

Periodontitis

Periodontitis has four stages. 

Stages I and II. Stage I periodontitis symptoms are similar to gingivitis. The gums are inflamed and bleed during brushing. They also begin to pull away from the teeth, creating pockets. Sometimes you may only see the effects of the disease rather than feel any pain. 

At a dental visit, your dentist can measure these pockets with a special tool; the deeper the pockets, the more severe the periodontal disease. Normal pockets are typically no more than 3 millimeters (mm) deep. The probe can be pushed deeper between the tooth and gum as you progress from Stage I to Stage II (and beyond). If periodontal disease is allowed to progress, the bone around the teeth begins to die. This process continues over time, with bone disappearing and gums pulling away from teeth, exposing the roots.

Treatment for Stages I and II involves a procedure called scaling and root planing. Like a dental cleaning, scaling removes tartar and plaque from above and below the gumline that your toothbrush can’t reach. Root planing smooths exposed surfaces of tooth roots, eliminating bacteria and toxins.

Stage III. Stage III periodontitis symptoms involve deeper pockets around teeth and more bone loss from the jaw. The deeper pockets expose tooth roots, causing pain, sensitivity, and discomfort. Bone loss can loosen teeth. As the infection continues, gums bleed easily, and pockets of pus form in the gums. This is the first stage of periodontitis that results in tooth loss.

Stage III treatment involves scaling and root planing, or perhaps surgery to remove areas of infection and reshape the gums and bone.

Stage IV. This is the most severe stage of periodontitis. The gums are dark and swollen and may produce pus. There are deep pockets between the teeth and gums. Other symptoms include bad breath, tooth and gum sensitivity, pain during chewing, and loose or lost teeth. Stage IV requires surgery to remove the infection and reshape the gums and bone. Tooth replacement is an option once the infection is under control.

Dentures

Dentures are sets of removable replacement teeth. They consist of acrylic teeth fused to a gum-colored plastic base. The base may cover a lightweight metal framework for added strength.

Full dentures replace all of a dental arch (upper or lower teeth or both). The layer of saliva between the gums and the denture keeps them in place. Dentures also can be held in by implants placed into the jaw. These are known as snap-in dentures. (Another approach, permanent dentures, are surgically fixed into the jawbone and can’t be removed.)

Partial dentures are an option if only a few teeth need to be replaced, the surrounding teeth aren’t strong enough, or they are in an ideal position for a bridge.

To anchor a partial denture, your dentist may reshape some teeth or install crowns (synthetic caps) or implants (a titanium screw that substitutes for a tooth’s root, topped by an artificial tooth). For full or partial dentures, you may need to have some teeth extracted.

Denture wearers require at least an annual dental check-up to make necessary repairs or adjust the denture fit as your jawbone can change shape over time. 

Properly clean and care for your dentures to keep them looking and feeling their best. For example:

  • Wash dentures daily in cold or warm water. Use a special denture brush or a hard toothbrush, denture cleaner, hand soap, or mild dish liquid. Do not use toothpaste, as many are abrasive and can scratch your dentures. 
  • Soak your dentures in warm water or a denture-cleaning solution when they aren’t in your mouth. Never use hot or boiling water, which could warp your dentures. 
  • Avoid dropping your dentures or biting into hard foods, as they may break. 

Take out your dentures when you sleep unless you have been instructed otherwise.

Oral Cancer

Oral cancer can occur on the lips, tongue, inside surface of the cheeks, hard palate (the front of the roof of the mouth), and gums. 

As with most cancers, treatment is easier and more likely to succeed if it is identified early. At your dental check-ups, your dentist will examine your mouth tissues, lips, and tongue for early signs of oral cancer.

Symptoms of oral cancer include:

  • a mouth sore that doesn’t heal
  • an area in your mouth that becomes discolored
  • a lump or thickening in your cheek that doesn’t go away
  • a persistent sore throat
  • changes in your voice
  • trouble chewing or swallowing
  • difficulty moving your jaw or tongue
  • loose teeth
  • numbness in your tongue or another part of your mouth
  • pain or swelling around your teeth or in your jaw
  • pain or irritation in the mouth that doesn’t go away
  • unexplained weight loss
  • a lump or mass in your neck
  • a consistent feeling of something caught in your throat

If your dentist or doctor suspects a problem, you may need to see an oral surgeon or an ear, nose, and throat surgeon. To test for cancer, the surgeon will do a biopsy, which involves removing a small piece of tissue from the abnormal area and examining it under a microscope.

Doctors assign oral cancer a stage based on its size and growth.

Treatment depends on where the cancer is located and its stage. If cancer is diagnosed at an earlier stage (stage I and II), the chances of a cure are much better.

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