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Whatever the mirror is saying, it's safe to say that most of us could be doing more to take care of our oral health. But where to begin? We asked two top dental health professionals for their insights.
Gingivitis, or inflammation of the gums, can do more than make your gums bleed—if left unchecked, it can lead to tooth loss and periodontal disease, which has been linked to heart disease, says Dr. Euan Swan, manager of dental programs at the Canadian Dental Association. Inflammation sets in when bacteria accumulate around teeth at the gumline and make their way under the gums. Over time, this chronic inflammation will eat away at the bones holding our teeth in place, which can lead to receding gums as well as loose and even lost teeth.
The fix: Gum care is essential, so floss and brush the gum area daily with a soft toothbrush—hard brushes can cause wear and tear. Next, see your dentist regularly to have your gums assessed and monitored. Early detection of chronic inflammation and gum recession allows for early treatment and can prevent future problems. Treatment for chronic gum inflammation usually means a deep cleaning to remove the bacteria stuck in pockets between teeth and gums. Extreme cases may call for gum surgery.
What causes our precious enamel to lose its lustre? Diet plays a huge role. Carbonated soft drinks, fruit juice, citrus fruit, wine (both red and white) and candy are just some of the foods and drinks that, over time, thin the protective coating on our teeth, leaving us vulnerable to cavities and discoloration.
Acid reflux can be a source of chemicals that cause erosion of the enamel, leading to a loss of tooth structure, says Dr. Les Kalman, assistant professor in restorative dentistry and chair of the Dental Outreach Community Services program at Western University's Schulich School of Medicine and Dentistry in London, Ont. Dry mouth, a common side-effect of many medications, can enhance the erosive process.
The fix: If erosion is suspected, Dr. Kalman recommends that patients see their dentist for an exam. And if erosion is in an active phase, the patient should be referred to a physican. For dry mouth, chewing sugar-free gum and sipping water can help, as can some over-the-counter saliva substitutes, such as Biotène Moisturizing Mouth Spray or Oasis Mouth Moisturizing Spray. Though avoiding sugary or acidic food and drinks helps protect enamel, you don't need to go cold turkey on sweets, coffee, wine or orange juice. Just don't swish acidic beverages around in your mouth, don't sip those beverages slowly, and drink plenty of water to help your teeth recover. Better yet, use a straw.
Teeth grinding is quite common—Dr. Kalman says we all may do it to some extent. But if the problem goes on too long without intervention, you could wear your teeth down significantly. Excessive grinding or clenching can wear away the protective enamel and expose the dentin (the yellowish, bone-like tissue that makes up the bulk of the tooth and is not as hard as enamel). Exposed dentin is at a greater risk than healthy teeth for cavity formation—and those cavities progress more rapidly, leading to even more dental complications.
The fix: How do you know when it's time to get help? Tooth sensitivity, loose teeth or trouble opening your mouth may be a sign of accelerated tooth wear, says Dr. Kalman. People who habitually grind their teeth should talk to their dentist, schedule an exam and inquire about an intervention, such as a bite splint (mouth guard).
It may be more about esthetics than long-term oral health, but many of us would like a whiter smile. Unfortunately, it's not as simple as avoiding such stain producers as cigarettes, coffee, wine and blueberries. Erosion and thinning of tooth enamel can make teeth look more yellow (due to dentin exposure), so keeping smiles bright means protecting the enamel and keeping it free of stains.
The fix: Whitening toothpastes, which contain abrasives that can polish teeth and chemicals that can help break down stains, may not always live up to the promise on the label, according to Dr. Swan. Sure, they can remove surface stains, but if discoloration has penetrated the enamel, you need the help of peroxide, a powerful bleaching agent, to really lighten up.
Most drugstores sell at-home kits that are strong enough to remove those deep stains, although the peroxide levels are generally much lower than what's available at your dentist's office. Consider seeing a professional if you have crowns or veneers and want to ensure a uniform shade of white, or if you simply want your teeth to reach a certain shade. Just don't go overboard; overzealous whitening can have un-intended consequences, such as irritated gums and sensitive teeth. And that's nothing to smile about.
Your oral hygiene is important. Check out how oral hygiene affects your overall health.
This story was originally part of "Smile Bright" in the October 2015 issue. Subscribe to Canadian Living today and never miss an issue!