Oral hygiene is the practice of keeping the mouth clean and healthy by brushing and flossing to prevent tooth decay and gum disease.
The purpose of oral hygiene is to prevent the build-up of plaque, the sticky film of bacteria and food that forms on the teeth. Plaque adheres to the crevices and fissures of the teeth and generates acids that, when not removed on a regular basis, slowly eat away, or decay, the protective enamel surface of the teeth, causing holes (cavities) to form. Plaque also irritates gums and can lead to gum disease (periodontal disease) and tooth loss. Toothbrushing and flossing remove plaque from teeth, and antiseptic mouthwashes kill some of the bacteria that help form plaque. Fluoride-in toothpaste, drinking water, or dental treatments-also helps to protect teeth by binding with enamel to make it stronger. In addition to such daily oral care, regular visits to the dentist promote oral health. Preventative services that he or she can perform include fluoride treatments, sealant application, and scaling (scraping off the hardened plaque, called tartar). The dentist can also perform such diagnostic services as x-ray imaging and oral cancer screening as well as such treatment services as fillings, crowns, and bridges.
Maintaining oral hygiene should be a lifelong habit. An infant’s gums and, later, teeth should be kept clean by wiping them with a moist cloth or a soft toothbrush. However, only a very small amount (the size of a pea) of toothpaste containing fluoride should be used since too much fluoride may be toxic to infants.
An adult who has partial or full dentures should also maintain good oral hygiene. Bridges and dentures must be kept clean to prevent gum disease. Dentures should be relined and adjusted by a dentist as necessary to maintain proper fit so the gums do not become red, swollen, and tender.
Brushing and flossing should be performed thoroughly but not too vigorously. Rough mechanical action may irritate or damage sensitive oral tissues. Sore or bleeding gums may be experienced for the first few days after flossing is begun. However, bleeding continuing beyond one week should be brought to the attention of a dentist. As a general rule, any sore or abnormal condition that does not disappear after 10 days should be examined by a dentist.
Brushing should be performed with a toothbrush and a fluoride toothpaste at least twice a day and preferably after every meal and snack. Effective brushing must clean each outer tooth surface, inner tooth surface, and the flat chewing surfaces of the back teeth. To clean the outer and inner surfaces, the toothbrush should be held at a 45-degree angle against the gums and moved back and forth in short strokes (no more than one toothwidth distance). To clean the inside surfaces of the front teeth, the toothbrush should be held vertically and the bristles at the tip (called the toe of the brush) moved gently up and down against each tooth. To clean the chewing surfaces of the large back teeth, the brush should be held flat and moved back and forth. Finally, the tongue should also be brushed using a back-to-front sweeping motion to remove food particles and bacteria that may sour the breath.
Toothbrushes wear out and should be replaced every three months. Consumers should look for toothbrushes with soft, nylon, rounded bristles in a size and shape that allows them to reach all tooth surfaces easily.
Holding a toothbrush may be difficult for people with limited use of their hands. The toothbrush handle may be modified by inserting it into a rubber ball for easier gripping.
Flossing once a day helps prevent gum disease by removing food particles and plaque at and below the gumline as well as between teeth. To begin, most of an 18-in (45-cm) strand of floss is wrapped around the third finger of one hand. A 1-in (2.5-cm) section is then grasped firmly between the thumb and forefinger of each hand. The floss is eased between two teeth and worked gently up and down several times with a rubbing motion. At the gumline, the floss is curved first around one tooth and then the other with gentle sliding into the space between the tooth and gum. After each tooth contact is cleaned, a fresh section of floss is unwrapped from one hand as the used section of floss is wrapped around the third finger of the opposite hand. Flossing proceeds between all teeth and behind the last teeth. Flossing should also be performed around the abutment (support) teeth of a bridge and under any artificial teeth using a device called a floss threader.
Dental floss comes in many varieties (waxed, unwaxed, flavored, tape) and may be chosen on personal preference. For people who have difficulty handling floss, floss holders and other types of interdental (between the teeth) cleaning aids, such as brushes and picks, are available.
Negative consequences arise from improper or infrequent brushing and flossing. The five major oral health problems are plaque, tartar, gingivitis, periodontitis, and tooth decay.
Plaque is a soft, sticky, colorless bacterial film that grows on the hard, rough surfaces of teeth. These bacteria use the sugar and starch from food particles in the mouth to produce acid. Left to accumulate, this acid destroys the outer enamel of the tooth, irritates the gums to the point of bleeding, and produces foul breath. Plaque starts forming again on teeth four to 12 hours after brushing, so brushing a minimum of twice a day is necessary for adequate oral hygiene.
When plaque is not regularly removed by brushing and flossing, it hardens into a yellow or brown mineral deposit called tartar or calculus. This formation is crusty and provides additional rough surfaces for the growth of plaque. When tartar forms below the gumline, it can lead to periodontal (gum) disease.
Gingivitis is an early form of periodontal disease, characterized by inflammation of the gums with painless bleeding during brushing and flossing. This common condition is reversible with proper dental care but if left untreated, it will progress into a more serious periodontal disease, periodontitis.
Periodontitis is a gum disease that destroys the structures supporting the teeth, including bone. Without support, the teeth will loosen and may fall out or have to be removed. To diagnose periodontitis, a dentist looks for gums that are red, swollen, bleeding, and shrinking away from the teeth, leaving widening spaces between teeth and exposed root surfaces vulnerable to decay.
Tooth decay, also called dental caries or cavities, is a common dental problem that results when the acid produced by plaque bacteria destroys the outer surface of a tooth. A dentist will remove the decay and fill the cavity with an appropriate dental material to restore and protect the tooth; left untreated, the decay will expand, destroying the entire tooth and causing significant pain.
With proper brushing and flossing, oral hygiene may be maintained and oral health problems may be avoided. Older adults may no longer assume that they will lose all of their teeth in their lifetime. Regular oral care preserves speech and eating functions, thus prolonging the quality of life.