Couple smiling after having bacterial plaque removed

How Bacterial Plaque Causes Gum Disease And Tooth Decay

Bacteria thrive in a moist, dark environment with lots of sugars for nourishment. This is why your mouth is often their home. But when bacteria overstay their welcome and create a sticky buildup of bacterial plaque on your teeth, dental problems can develop. Bacterial plaque causes gum disease and tooth decay in a few ways, but it is all of this is preventable.

Bacterial Plaque

As bacterial plaque continually accumulates on your teeth, according to the American Dental Association (ADA) Mouth Healthy site, it uses the foods and drinks you consume to produce acids. Plaque's stickiness keeps the acids against your teeth's surface, which gives them an opportunity to break down the tooth enamel. The majority of this acid is produced after eating, so every time you eat a meal or snack, your teeth are prone to plaque buildup within 20 minutes, according to the National Institutes of Health.

Tartar Buildup and Gum Disease

The same bacterial acids that destroy tooth enamel can initiate an infection of your gum tissue and bone surrounding your teeth. When you don't remove all of the bacterial plaque from your teeth, it hardens into tartar. Though bacterial plaque causes gum disease, tartar buildup gives bacterial plaque a place to thrive.

In the first stage of gum disease (gingivitis), your gums become red, swollen and bleed easily due to plaque adhering along the tooth and gumline causing inflammation around the teeth. If plaque and tartar are left at the gumline and underneath the gums, bacterial toxins will attack the bone and ligaments surrounding the teeth in more advanced phases of gum disease, like periodontitis, can occur.

Weak Tooth Enamel

Weak tooth enamel is less likely to resist the bacterial acids in your mouth that lead to tooth decay. Use fluoride toothpaste like Colgate® Cavity Protection to strengthen and protect your tooth enamel, and ask your dentist about other sources of fluoride for your family, such as mouthrinses, supplements or fluoridated water.


Skimping out on personal care will only hinder your ability to reverse gum disease, and it starts with toothbrushing. Bacteria build up more quickly when it isn't regularly brushed away, so brush your teeth with a soft-bristle toothbrush at least twice daily. Pay particular attention to the plaque that gathers around the gumline. Replace your toothbrush often as well; worn, frayed brushes don't clean thoroughly and they harbor old bacteria – the culprit you're trying to get rid of.


Flossing once a day is a must, because your toothbrush cannot reach all of the food and bacteria trapped between your teeth. By removing plaque and debris from these hard-to-reach surfaces (before it hardens into tartar), you reduce your risk for decay or gum disease. The best time to floss is before bed so that your mouth has fewer bacteria while sleeping – but if you prefer flossing in the mornings, that's okay too. If you find flossing awkward, ask your dentist about floss holders or other interdental cleaning devices that are available.

Regular Professional Cleanings

Bacteria that hardens into tartar isn't removable with a toothbrush, so cleanings done by your dentist or dental hygienist are also necessary to remove plaque and tartar on your teeth or under your gums before it can cause gum disease. During these checkups, your dentist will detect and treat any decay or gum problems early, before more serious dental problems have a chance to take hold.

Healthy Eating

When you reduce your intake of carbohydrates – especially refined sugars – you reduce the bacteria's ability to produce acids that cause decay and gum disease. The ADA Mouth Healthy site stresses the importance of eating a healthy diet with lots of whole grains, proteins and dairy, as well as fruits and vegetables. Replace sugary snacks and drinks with cheeses, yogurt and natural peanut butter. This helps reduce the number of acid attacks your teeth are exposed to during the day.

Bacterial plaque is the bad guy when it comes to dental disease. But don't let plaque win the battle. Know the common causes and give bacterial plaque the boot with a daily arsenal of preventative measures.

This article is intended to promote understanding of and knowledge about general oral health topics. It is not intended to be a substitute for professional advice, diagnosis or treatment. Always seek the advice of your dentist or other qualified healthcare provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition or treatment.

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