Tooth Decay (Cavities)
Teeth are meant to last a lifetime. By taking good care of your teeth and gums, you can protect them for years to come. Tooth decay is not just a problem for children. It can happen as long as you have natural teeth in your mouth.
Tooth decay ruins the enamel that covers and protects your teeth. When you don’t take good care of your mouth, bacteria can cling to your teeth and form a sticky, colorless film called dental plaque. This plaque can lead to tooth decay and cavities. Gum disease can also cause your teeth to decay.
Fluoride is just as helpful for adults as it is for children. Using a fluoride toothpaste and mouth rinse can help protect your teeth. If you have a problem with cavities, your dentist or dental hygienist may give you a fluoride treatment during the office visit. The dentist also may prescribe a fluoride gel or mouth rinse for you to use at home.
Gum diseases (sometimes called periodontal or gingival diseases) are infections that harm the gum and bone that hold teeth in place. When plaque stays on your teeth too long, it forms a hard, harmful covering, called tartar, that brushing doesn’t clean. The longer the plaque and tartar stay on your teeth, the more damage they cause. Your gum may become red, swollen, and bleed easily. This is called gingivitis.
If gingivitis is not treated, over time it can make your gums pull away from your teeth and form pockets that can get infected. This is called periodontitis. If not treated, this infection can ruin the bones, gums, and tissue that support your teeth. In time, it can cause loose teeth that your dentist may have to remove.
Here’s how you can prevent gum disease:
- Brush your teeth twice a day (with a fluoride toothpaste).
- Floss once a day.
- Make regular visits to your dentist for a checkup and cleaning.
- Eat a well-balanced diet.
- Don’t use tobacco products.
Knowing how to brush and floss the right way is a big part of good oral health. Here’s how: every day gently brush your teeth on all sides with a soft-bristle brush and fluoride toothpaste. Small round motions and short back-and-forth strokes work best. Take the time to brush carefully and gently along the gum line. Lightly brushing your tongue also helps.
Along with brushing, clean around your teeth with dental floss to keep your gums healthy. Careful flossing will remove plaque and leftover food that a toothbrush can’t reach. Rinse after you floss.
If brushing or flossing causes your gums to bleed or hurt your mouth, see your dentist.
Your dentist also may prescribe a bacteria-fighting mouth rinse to help control plaque and swollen gums. Use the mouth rinse in addition to careful daily brushing and flossing. Some people with arthritis or other conditions that limit motion may find it hard to hold a toothbrush. It may help to attach the toothbrush handle to your hand with a wide elastic band. Some people make the handle bigger by taping it to a sponge or Styrofoam ball. People with limited shoulder movement may find brushing easier if they attach a long piece of wood or plastic to the handle. Electric toothbrushes can be helpful.
Dentures (sometimes called false teeth) may feel strange at first. When you are learning to eat with them, it may be easier if you:
- Start with soft non-sticky food;
- Cut your food into small pieces; and
- Chew slowly using both sides of your mouth.
Keep your dentures clean and free from food that can cause stains, bad breath, or swollen gums. Once a day, brush all surfaces with a denture care product. When you go to sleep, take your dentures out of your mouth and put them in water or a denture cleansing liquid.
Take care of partial dentures the same way. Because bacteria can collect under the clasps (clips) that hold partial dentures, be sure to carefully clean that area.
Dental implants are small metal pieces placed in the jaw to hold false teeth or partial dentures in place. They are not for everyone. You need a complete dental and medical checkup to find out if implants are right for you. Your gums must be healthy and your jawbone able to support the implants. Talk to your dentist to find out if you should think about dental implants.
Doctors used to think that dry mouth (xerostomia) was a normal part of aging. They now know that’s not true. Older, healthy adults shouldn’t have a problem with saliva.
Dry mouth happens when salivary glands don’t work properly. This can make it hard to eat, swallow, taste, and even speak. Dry mouth also can Alzheimer’s Diseased to the risk of tooth decay and infection. You can get dry mouth from many diseases or medical treatments, such as head and neck radiation therapy. Many common medicines also can cause dry mouth.
If you think you have dry mouth, talk with your dentist or doctor to find out why. If your dry mouth is caused by a medicine you take, your doctor might change your medicine or dosage.
To prevent the dryness, drink extra water. Cut back on sugary snacks, drinks that have caffeine or alcohol, and tobacco. Your dentist or doctor also might suggest that you keep your mouth wet by using artificial saliva, which you can get from most drug stores. Some people benefit from sucking hard candy.
Oral cancer most often occurs in people over age 40. It’s important to catch oral cancer early, because treatment works best before the disease has spread. Pain often is not an early symptom of the disease.
A dental check-up is a good time for your dentist to look for early signs of oral cancer. Even if you have lost all your natural teeth, you should still see your dentist for regular oral cancer exams. See your dentist or doctor if you have trouble with swelling, numbness, sores, or lumps in your mouth, or if it becomes hard for you to chew, swallow, or move your jaw or tongue. These problems could be signs of oral cancer.
Here’s how you can lower your risk of getting oral cancer: don’t smoke; don’t use snuff or chew tobacco; if you drink alcohol, do so in moderation; use lip cream with sunscreen; and eat lots of fruits and vegetables.