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Eight Steps to Dental Health

Step 1: Understand your own oral health needs.

Step 2: Commit to a daily oral health routine.

Step 3: Use fluoride products.

Step 4: Brush and floss to remove plaque.

Step 5: Limit snacks, particularly those high in simple sugars, and eat a balanced diet.

Step 6: If you use tobacco in any form, quit.

Step 7: Examine your mouth regularly.

Step 8: Visit the dental office regularly.

It takes more than just brushing.
OK, so you know about brushing and flossing. But there are other steps you should take if you want to keep your teeth for a lifetime. Some people assume they will lose their teeth as they age. That doesn't have to happen. David A. Albert, D.D.S., M.P.H., suggests these steps to keep your teeth and your mouth healthy. Dr. Albert is an associate professor of clinical dentistry at the Columbia University College of Dental Medicine.

Step 1: Understand your own oral health needs. "Your oral health depends on many factors," Dr. Albert said. "These include what you eat, the type and amount of saliva in your mouth, your habits, your overall health and your oral hygiene routine."

Changes in your overall health status often result in changes in your oral health. "For example, many medicines, including more than 300 common drugs, can reduce the amount of saliva in your mouth, resulting in dry mouth," he said.

"Women who are pregnant go through oral changes. This often includes inflammation of the gums, which is called pregnancy gingivitis. Patients with asthma often breathe through their mouths, particularly when sleeping. This can result in dry mouth and increased plaque formation and gingivitis. People with braces have more difficulty cleaning their teeth and can get more cavities."

Step 2: Commit to a daily oral health routine.
Talk to your dentist or dental hygienist about your oral health practices. Based on the discussion, come up with an effective routine. It should be easy to follow and should take your situation into account. For example, if you are taking medicine that dries your mouth, it is important to use fluorides every day. This is also recommended for people who have had many cavities.

Step 3: Use fluoride products.

Everyone can benefit from fluoride, not just children. Fluoride strengthens developing teeth in children. It also helps prevent decay in adults and children.

Toothpastes and mouthwashes are good sources of fluoride. Your dentist can prescribe a stronger concentration of fluoride in a gel, toothpaste or rinse if you need it. Gels are either brushed on or applied using a tray. Prescription products contain more fluoride and offer more protection against cavities than over-the-counter products.

Step 4: Brush and floss to remove plaque.
Everyone should brush at least twice a day. It's even better to brush three times a day or after every meal. In addition, you should floss at least once a day. These activities remove plaque, which is a complex mass of bacteria that constantly forms on your teeth. If plaque isn't removed every day, it can turn the sugars found in most foods and drinks into acids that lead to decay. Bacteria in plaque also cause gingivitis and other periodontal diseases. It's important to brush and floss correctly and thoroughly. You need to remove plaque from all sides of the tooth and where the tooth meets the gums. If plaque is not removed, it can lead to gum problems and cavities.

Step 5: Limit snacks, particularly those high in simple sugars, and eat a balanced diet.
Every time you eat, bits of food become lodged in and around your teeth. This food provides fuel for the bacteria in plaque. The bacteria produce acid. Each time you eat food containing sugars or starches (complex sugars), your teeth are exposed to these acids. This occurs more often if you eat snacks and the food stays on your teeth for a while. These repeated acid attacks can break down the enamel surface of your teeth, leading to a cavity.

If you must snack, brush your teeth or chew sugarless gum afterward. Gums that are sweetened with xylitol can also help to reduce the amount of bacteria that cause tooth decay.

A balanced diet is also important. Not getting enough minerals and vitamins can affect your oral health, as well as your general health.

Step 6: If you use tobacco in any form, quit.
Smoking or using smokeless tobacco increases your risk of oral cancer, gingivitis, periodontitis and tooth decay. Using tobacco also contributes to bad breath and stains on your teeth.

Step 7: Examine your mouth regularly.
Even if you visit your dentist regularly, you are in the best position to notice changes in your mouth. Your dentist and dental hygienist see you only a few times a year, but you can examine your mouth weekly to look for changes that might be of concern. Changes in your mouth that you should look for include::

  • Swollen gums
  • Chipped teeth
  • Discolored teeth
  • Sores or lesions on your gums, cheeks or tongue

A regular examination is particularly important for tobacco users, who are at increased risk of developing oral cancer. If you smoke or use smokeless tobacco, your dentist or dental hygienist can show you where a sore, spot, patch or lump is most likely to appear.

Step 8: Visit the dental office regularly.
Talk to your dentist about how often you should visit. If you have a history of cavities or crown and bridge work, or are wearing braces, you should visit the dentist more often. Some people, such as diabetics or smokers, have more gum disease than the general population. They also should visit the dentist more often. People with suppressed immune systems also are more likely to have dental problems. Examples include people who are infected with HIV or are receiving cancer treatment. More frequent visits for these groups are important to maintain good oral health.

©2002-2013 Aetna, Inc. All rights reserved.

Last updated June 27, 2014

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