Make sure you go to see your dentist every six months for a teeth cleaning and evaluation of your teeth and mouth. There is no more important way to be sure that the care you are giving your teeth at home is the best you can give and that you do not have problems developing in your mouth.
A teeth cleaning is often done by a dental hygienist before the dentist takes a look at your teeth. At this cleaning, the hygienist will give your teeth a better cleaning than you can. Even the most careful patient leaves plaque on his or her teeth. Plaque is the sticky film that accumulates on your teeth and harbours bacteria. Those bacteria are responsible for tooth decay. Bacteria live on the sugars and starches from your food and give off lactic acid. This acid causes a demineralization of the tooth’s hard enamel covering which can eventually lead to cavities in the enamel or even the dentin under the enamel. This is known as tooth decay and is really a hole or holes in the tooth beneath the enamel. Too many holes in the tooth can lead to tooth loss. Either the tooth becomes too full of holes to fix or it develops an infection whereby the tooth is lost.
Obviously, tooth decay is best stopped when it is just beginning. After your teeth are cleaned, the dentist will examine them for cavities or caries. Dentists use dental probes to feel for soft spots between teeth and at the gum line. Sometimes they use special lights to detect cavities, some of which may be formed largely under the tooth surface. Even a bright light can help a dentist see areas where decay is forming. Early decay appears as a whitish spot, and can be treated without a filling. At this stage, the dentist may recommend fluoride treatment to remineralize the area. He or she may also recommend more careful cleaning, with floss and twice daily brushing with a soft toothbrush. You may also be told to change your toothbrush every three months to ensure better cleaning. Possibly, the dentist may fill in grooves in the teeth or even cracks with sealant to keep out bacteria.
If the decay is more advanced, and there is a hole through the enamel into the dentin, you will probably be given a filling. The dentist will first clean out the area with a drill to ensure that the decay does not continue and then add a filling to make the tooth functional again.
Another area where dental problems arise, especially in older people, is in the gums. Gum disease is not always recognized by a patient. A person may go to see the dentist when there is decay because he or she is experiencing pain in the tooth, but gum disease is often painless, especially at first. However, it is gum disease that leads to most tooth loss. Gradually diseased gums cease to hold the teeth in place. Although surgery can be used to treat gum problems, it is expensive, and it is always better to treat the gums well in the first place.
Again, it is a case of carefully brushing and flossing your teeth at home, twice a day, or even after every major snack or meal. Sugar in the mouth, derived from sugars and starches eaten, feeds the bacteria that make plaque. Plaque can harden to produce even more difficulty in cleaning, especially under the gums and between teeth. Only a professional teeth cleaning can remove this hardened plaque or tartar. Furthermore, the dental hygienist will recognize the signs of gum disease whether the patient does or not. The patient can then be advised as to how to help him or herself to healthier gums.
Older patients, too, may have problems with low saliva levels due to age or to the medications they are taking. When the acidity of the mouth reaches a certain point, it becomes difficult for the saliva to keep the enamel remineralized, and both plaque and decay may be the result. The dental hygienist and the dentist can provide the patient with suggestions as to healthier eating patterns and as to drugs less likely to interfere with saliva production for patients wishing to avoid both tooth and gum problems.
The dentist may also find evidence of tooth-grinding or bruxism in the dental examination. Many patients who grind their teeth are not aware of doing so, but tooth-grinding can have devastating effects on teeth. It often leads to tooth breakage or fracture or to apparently inexplicable tooth pain. Sometimes, it is even the cause of tooth loss. However, on the dentist’s advice, the problem can often be solved by the wearing of a fitted plastic night guard such as one wears for sports.
Another condition for which the dentist examines the patient’s mouth in the regular six-month checkup is mouth cancer. Lesions that the patient would never see are clear under dental lights and a practised eye. Early detection of this serious condition greatly improves chances of complete recovery from the disease.
It is important to note also that dental health impacts on our general health. Conditions such as diabetes, heart problems, certain complications of pregnancy, and lung problems are all improved when oral health is good. Clearly, we deteriorate in our general health when dental problems are ignored.
The truth is that nowadays we have a real chance to keep our teeth, and sometimes our general health, all our lives if we follow the advice of dentists and continue with necessary dental treatments. It is also true that, if we are lucky, these treatments can be restricted largely to six-month checkups and self-care. This is a small price to pay for the great benefits that modern dentistry is now offering us.