Oral Health Care

A healthy smile is a bonus at any age. Too often older people, neglect the health of their teeth. It is never too late to learn the basics of oral health care.

Tooth Decay (Cavities)

Tooth decay is not just a children's disease; it can happen as long as natural teeth are in the mouth. Tooth decay is caused by bacteria that normally live in the mouth. The bacteria cling to teeth and form a sticky, colorless film called dental plaque. The bacteria in plaque live on sugars and produce decay causing acids that dissolve minerals on tooth surfaces. Tooth decay can also develop on the exposed roots of the teeth if you have gum disease or receding gums (where gums pull away from the teeth, exposing the roots).

Just as with children, fluoride is important for adult teeth. Research has shown that adding fluoride to the water supply is the best and least costly way to prevent tooth decay. In addition, using fluoride tooth pastes and mouth rinses can add protection. Daily fluoride rinses can be bought at most drug stores without a prescription. If you have a problem with cavities, your dentist or dental hygienist may give you a fluoride treatment during the office visit. The dentist may prescribe a fluoride gel or a mouth rinse for you to use at home.

Gum (Periodontal) Disease

A common cause of tooth loss after age 35 is gum (periodontal) disease. These are infections of the gum and bone that hold the teeth in place. Gum diseases are also caused by dental plaque. The bacteria in plaque causes the gums to become inflamed and bleed easily. If left untreated, the disease gets worse as pockets of infection form between the teeth and gums. This causes receding gums and loss of supporting bone. You may lose enough bone to cause your teeth to become loose and fall out. You can prevent gum disease by removing plaque. Thoroughly brush and floss your teeth each day. Carefully check your mouth for early signs of disease such as red, swollen, or bleeding gums. See your dentist regularly every 6-12 months - or at once if these signs are present.

Cleaning Your Teeth and Gums

An important part of good oral health is knowing how to brush and floss correctly. Thorough brushing each day removes plaque. Gently brush the teeth on all sides with a soft bristle brush using a fluoride toothpaste. Circular and short back-and-forth strokes work best. Take the time to brush carefully along the gum line. Lightly brushing your tongue also helps to remove plaque and food debris and makes your mouth feel fresh.

In addition to brushing, using dental floss is necessary to keep the gums healthy. Proper flossing is important because it removes plaque and leftover food that a toothbrush cannot reach. Your dentist or dental hygienist can show you the best way to brush and floss your teeth. If brushing or flossing results in bleeding gums, pain, or irritation, see your dentist at once.

An antibacterial mouth rinse, approved for the control of plaque and swollen gums, may be prescribed by your dentist. The mouth rinse is used in addition to careful daily brushing and flossing. Some people (with arthritis or other conditions that limit motion) may find it hard to hold a toothbrush. To overcome this, the toothbrush handle can be attached to the hand with a wide elastic band or may be enlarged by attaching it to a sponge, styrofoam ball, or similar object. People with limited shoulder movement may find brushing easier if the handle of the brush is lengthened by attaching a long piece of wood or plastic. Electric toothbrushes are helpful to many.

Other Conditions of the Mouth

Dry mouth (xerostomia) is common in many adults and may make it hard to eat, swallow, taste, and speak. The condition happens when salivary glands fail to work properly as a result of various diseases or medical treatments, such as chemotherapy or radiation therapy to the head and neck area. Dry mouth is also a side effect of more than 400 commonly used medicines, including drugs for high blood pressure, antidepressants, and antihistamines. Dry mouth can affect oral health by adding to tooth decay and infection.

Until recently, dry mouth was regarded as a normal part of aging. We now know that healthy older adults produce as much saliva as younger adults. So, if you think you have dry mouth, talk with your dentist or doctor. To relieve the dryness, drink extra water and avoid sugary snacks, beverages with caffeine, tobacco, and alcohol - all of which increase dryness in the mouth.