If your dentist found tooth decay on your last visit, you might have been surprised. But tooth decay doesn't occur suddenly—it's a process that takes time to unfold.
It begins with bacteria—too many, that is. Bacteria naturally live in the mouth, but when their populations grow (often because of an abundance of leftover sugar to feed on) they produce high amounts of acid, a byproduct of their digestion. Too much acid contact over time softens and eventually erodes tooth enamel, making decay easier to advance into the tooth.
So, one important strategy for preventing tooth decay is to keep your mouth's bacterial population under control. To do that, here are 4 common-sense tactics you should perform between dental visits.
Practice daily hygiene. Bacteria thrive in dental plaque, a thin film of food particles that builds up on teeth. By both brushing and flossing you can reduce plaque buildup and in turn reduce disease-causing bacteria. In addition, brushing with a fluoride toothpaste can also help strengthen tooth enamel against acid attacks.
Cut back on sugar. Reducing how much sugar you eat—and how often –deprives bacteria of a prime food source. Constant snacking throughout the day on sweets worsens the problem because it prevents saliva, the body's natural acid neutralizer, from reducing high acid levels produced while eating. Constant snacking doesn't allow saliva to complete this process, which normally takes about thirty minutes to an hour. To avoid this scenario, limit any sweets you eat to mealtimes only.
Wait to brush after eating. Although this sounds counterintuitive, your tooth enamel is in a softened state until saliva completes the acid neutralizing process previously described. If you brush immediately after eating you could brush away tiny particles of softened enamel. Instead, rinse your mouth out with water and wait an hour for saliva to do its work before brushing.
Boost your saliva. Inadequate saliva flow could inhibit the fluid's ability to adequately neutralize acid or provide other restorative benefits to tooth enamel. You can improve flow with supplements or medications, or by drinking more water during the day. Products with xylitol, a natural sugar alternative, could give you a double benefit: chewing gums and mints containing it could stimulate more saliva flow and the xylitol itself can inhibit bacterial growth.
If you're the principal caregiver for an older person, you may have already faced age-related health challenges with them. Good preventive care, however, can ease the impact of health problems. This is especially true for their teeth and gums: with your support you're loved one can have fewer dental problems and enjoy better health overall.
Here are a number of things you should focus on to protect an older person's dental health.
Hygiene difficulties. With increased risk of arthritis and similar joint problems, older people may find brushing and flossing more difficult. You can help by modifying their toothbrush handles with a tennis ball or bicycle grip for an easier hold, or switch them to an electric toothbrush. A water flosser, a device that uses a pressurized water spray to remove plaque, may also be easier for them to use than thread flossing.
Dry mouth. Xerostomia, chronic dry mouth, is more prevalent among older populations. Dry mouth can cause more than discomfort—with less acid-neutralizing saliva available in the mouth, the risk for dental diseases like tooth decay or periodontal (gum) disease can soar. To improve their saliva flow, talk with their doctors about alternative medications that cause less dry mouth; and encourage your loved one to drink more water and use products that help boost saliva flow.
Dentures. If your older person wears dentures, be sure these appliances are being cleaned and maintained daily to maximize their function and reduce disease-causing bacteria. You should also have their dentures fit-tested regularly—chronic jawbone loss, something dentures can't prevent, can loosen denture fit over time. Their dentures may need to be relined or eventually replaced to ensure continuing proper fit and function.
Osteoporosis. This common disease in older people weakens bone structure. It's often treated with bisphosphonates, a class of drugs that while slowing the effects of osteoporosis can cause complications after certain dental procedures. It's a good idea, then, for an older person to undergo any needed dental work before they go on osteoporosis medication.
Keep alert also for any signs of dental disease like unusual spots on the teeth or swollen or bleeding gums. Visiting the dentist for these and regular dental cleanings, checkups and oral cancer screenings could prevent many teeth and gum problems.
If you would like more information on senior dental care, 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 “Aging & Dental Health.”
Your gums aren’t just for show—they also play an important role in supporting and protecting your teeth. Healthy gums are essential for healthy teeth.
Your gums can take a lot from daily chewing or other environmental factors. Unfortunately, disease or trauma can weaken their resilience. This weakening could lead to gum recession.
Gum recession occurs when the tissues covering a tooth begin to lose their attachment and shrink back (recede). As a result, the tooth appears “longer” as more of it that’s normally below the gum line becomes visible. Not only is gum recession unattractive, it also exposes more of the tooth to disease-causing bacteria.
The most common cause for gum recession is periodontal (gum) disease, an infection arising from the accumulation of a thin bacterial biofilm on the teeth called plaque. Infected gums become inflamed, a normal defensive response to isolate diseased or damaged tissues from the rest of the body. Chronic inflammation, however, weakens affected tissues over time and results in bone loss.
Other factors can also contribute to gum recession. A tooth that didn’t erupt properly and has come in away from the center of its protective bony housing can impede adequate gum coverage. Your gum tissue thickness, which you genetically inherit, can also increase the risk of gum recession. People with thinner gum tissues are more susceptible to recession than with thicker tissues.
You can also damage your gums (ironically) while trying to care for them. Over-aggressive brushing over time may traumatize the gums to the point that they recede. While it’s essential in removing disease-causing dental plaque, brushing only requires a gentle scrubbing action covering all portions of tooth surfaces. The brush bristles and mild abrasives in the toothpaste do most of the work of plaque removal.
To minimize the chances of gum recession, you should practice proper oral hygiene and visit your dentist regularly for professional cleanings and checkups. And you might also consider orthodontics for improperly positioned teeth that could not only improve your smile, but also your gum health.
And by all means see your dentist if you notice any signs of gum infection like swollen, reddened or bleeding gums. The sooner you begin gum disease treatment, the less likely your gums will recede in the future.
If you would like more information on recognizing and treating gum recession, 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 “Gum Recession: Getting Long in the Tooth.”
We can do a great many things to preserve diseased teeth, from filling cavities to crowning damaged but still viable teeth to protect them and restore their attractiveness. But there may come a point where continued treatment just isn't worth it, and it may be time to remove and replace your troubled teeth.
Dental implants have become the premier restoration for missing teeth. But they have some anatomical limitations and may not work for some situations like excessive bone loss or close nerve proximity. And while a removable partial denture is a solid option, perhaps you'd rather have a fixed solution.
You might then want to consider a fixed bridge to replace one or more missing teeth. This tried and true option has been a mainstay in dentistry for several decades; and while implants may have surpassed them in popularity, they're still available and effective as a restorative option.
A traditional fixed bridge is composed of three or more life-like crowns that are fused together like pickets in a fence. The crown or crowns in the middle fill the empty tooth space; the outside crowns fit over and are bonded to the natural teeth on either side of the empty space to support the bridge. These natural teeth must be reduced in size to accommodate the crowns to fit over them.
Depending on how many teeth are missing, fixed bridges can be a more affordable alternative to dental implants and can achieve life-like results in both form and dental function. But the alterations required for the supporting teeth are permanent and can weaken them. The interface between the natural teeth and the bridge crowns has a higher risk of decay and periodontal disease, so you'll need to be extra vigilant with daily hygiene and regular dental cleanings and checkups.
And even though implants can be more expensive in the short-term, they typically have better durability and less maintenance costs than other restorations. Over the long-term, an implant restoration might actually incur less cost than a fixed bridge.
Still, a fixed bridge can be an effective way to replace missing teeth. Depending on your finances and your overall dental health, a bridge could help you regain an attractive smile.
If you would like more information on options for replacing missing teeth, 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 “Crowns & Bridgework.”
Applying braces or clear aligners to move misaligned teeth is only part of an orthodontist's overall mission to eliminate poor bites (malocclusions). Sometimes a malocclusion isn't caused by the teeth at all—the size of the jaw is the problem!
One type in particular, a cross-bite, often happens because the upper jaw has developed too narrowly. As a result, many of the upper teeth fit inside the lower, the opposite of normal. But a tool called a palatal expander can alleviate the problem if it's applied at an early enough age.
The device works because the upper jawbone initially forms as two halves that fit together along a center line in the roof of the mouth (the palate) running from the back of the mouth to the front. These two bone halves remain separate during childhood to facilitate jaw growth, but eventually fuse around puberty.
Consisting of two sets of wire arms joined together by a hinge mechanism in the middle, the expander device is positioned up against the palate. The orthodontist extends each arm to press against the inside of the back teeth, then adds more outward pressure by turning the mechanism in the middle with a small key. During wear, the patient or caregiver will turn the mechanism in the same way to keep up the pressure on the two sides of the jaw.
This continual pressure keeps the two bones moving away from each other and maintaining a center gap between them. In response, more bone forms on the two halves to fill the gap. In time, the newly formed bone should widen the jaw enough to correct any developing malocclusion.
Timing is everything with a palatal expander—if not used before the jaw bones fuse, the patient will need a surgical procedure to separate the bones to pursue treatment. To catch the problem early enough, children should have an orthodontic evaluation on or before they turn six. An orthodontist may be able to identify this or other emerging bite problems and intervene before it becomes worse. Taking this approach can help save you and your child more expensive orthodontic treatment down the road.
If you would like more information on correcting poor bites, 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 “Palatal Expanders: Orthodontics is more than just Moving Teeth.”
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