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How to Keep Your Gums and Teeth Healthy

Brushing and flossing your teeth isn't hard to do, and doing both properly can help prevent gum disease and tooth loss.

Gum disease is caused by plaque--a sticky film made of bacteria, mucus, and other particles--that forms on the teeth. When the plaque is not removed, it hardens into tarter that harbors bacteria, according to the American Dental Association (ADA). The bacteria in the plaque and tarter cause inflammation of the gums called gingivitis. Tartar can only be removed by a dental hygienist or dentist. 

Gum disease has three stages:

  • Gingivitis. This is the early stage, characterized by red, swollen, tender gums that bleed easily. When caught early, the condition often can be reversed by proper brushing and flossing.

  • Periodontitis. This refers to inflammation around the tooth. It is the next stage and is a more advanced form of gum disease that occurs when bacterial toxins in plaque break down the gum attachment to the tooth. This causes the gums to pull away from the teeth and form pockets of infected material. Early loss of bone around the teeth may be evident. Treatment at this stage is critical to prevent further erosion of bone and loosening of teeth.  

  • Advanced periodontitis. This is characterized by deepening of gum pockets and destruction of bone that holds teeth in place. At this stage, teeth may loosen and need to be extracted if periodontal treatment doesn't restore bone support.

Signs and symptoms of periodontal disease usually appear when the condition is advanced. Signs and symptoms are:

  • Bad breath that persists

  • Red, swollen, tender gums

  • Receding gums (gums that pull away from the teeth) 

  • Pain when chewing

  • Loose or sensitive teeth

Risk factors

The following factors put a person at more risk for developing gingivitis:

  • Smoking or using chewing tobacco

  • Hormonal changes in girls and women

  • Diabetes

  • Certain medications

Prevention

Good oral hygiene--including brushing and flossing at least once every day--can help prevent gum infections, cavities, and tooth loss. Having your teeth cleaned and checked by a dentist or dental hygienist at least once a year also is important, the ADA says. No matter how well you brush, tartar, and plaque can still build up and cause gum problems.

To brush correctly:

  • Do so in the morning and before going to sleep.

  • Use a soft-bristled brush and toothpaste that contains fluoride. If you can afford the cost, buy and use an electric toothbrush.

  • Place your toothbrush at a 45-degree angle against your gums and brush each tooth 15 to 20 times.

  • Move the brush gently, using short strokes; don't scrub.

  • Brush the outer tooth surfaces using short, back-and-forth strokes.

  • Brush the inner upper-front teeth by brushing vertically against them using short, downward strokes. Use short, upward strokes for lower inside teeth.

  • Brush the chewing surfaces of the teeth with short, back-and-forth strokes. Replace your toothbrush when it's worn or frayed--about every three or four months, experts say. You should also get a new toothbrush after you have had a cold, strep throat, or similar illness.

  • Do not cover your toothbrush or store it in a closed container that can encourage growth of microorganisms. 

Floss with care

Flossing helps remove plaque and food particles stuck between your teeth. To floss properly:

  • Cut off about 18 inches of floss and hold it tightly between your thumbs and forefingers. Guide it between your teeth using a gentle, rubbing motion.

  • When the floss reaches the gum line, curve it around one tooth. Gently rub the side of the tooth, moving the floss with up-and-down motions. Repeat this method on the rest of your teeth, remembering to floss the back side of your back teeth.

Watch what you eat

The foods you eat contribute to tooth decay when they combine with bacteria in your mouth. To protect your teeth:

  • Consume plenty of calcium-rich foods, such as milk, yogurt, and cheese. Calcium maintains the bone the tooth roots are embedded in.  This is particularly important for the elderly and for children during development of both baby and adult teeth.

  • Avoid sticky sweets, such as soft candies, toffees, taffies, and pastries. If you eat sweets, rinse your mouth with water afterward or brush your teeth if you have a chance.

  • If you chew gum, chew sugar-free brands.

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