Nothing but the tooth: how to keep your choppers healthy

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Do you go to bed without brushing your teeth? Are you too busy to floss? You may think that skipping brushing or flossing is not a big deal, but neglecting your teeth can lead to some serious (and embarrassing) health problems.

Cavities and gum disease are infections that can cause really stinky breath, incredible pain, and a lot of swelling. Left untreated, those infections can eventually lead to tooth loss. But there are simple steps you can take to prevent tooth decay. Read on to learn everything you need to know about how to keep your mouth healthy for life.

You have a cavity–so what?

Cavities–known by dental professionals as dental caries–are actually infectious diseases. Simply put, a cavity is a diseased spot in the tooth. It all starts with plaque, a sticky bacterial film that coats your teeth and gums. (That’s what feels slimy on your teeth when you first wake up in the morning!) The bacteria eat sugars from things you eat and drink, producing acids. Then, the acids eat away at your tooth’s hard outer coating, or enamel.

If you don’t brush and floss regularly to remove plaque–or if you keep missing a spot–that acid will eventually eat away the enamel entirely, forming a cavity (or a hole in the enamel). “The larger [the cavity] gets, the closer it gets to the nerve, increasing the chance of incredible pain,” according to Lynn Ramer, president of the American Dental Hygienists‘ Association.

A cavity will never just go away by itself. There’s no brushing the problem under the proverbial rug. “Left untreated, 100 percent of the time a cavity will spread,” says Dr. William Berlocher, a dentist who is also president of the American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry.


If a cavity is caught early enough, your dentist will be able to fix your tooth with simple filling. First, he or she will give you a shot to numb the area so you won’t feel anything. Next, the infection will be removed and replaced with a special material, either a metal amalgam, which is a blend of various metals including silver, or a more natural-looking composite, which is made of glass or quartz mixed with resin. Caitlin G., a 10th grader from New Port Richey, Fla., had to get a cavity filled a few years ago. “It hurt a little bit, but not as much as I expected,” she says.

If you ignore that pain in your tooth, the infection will keep spreading–right into the tooth’s root, forming a more serious and painful infection known as an abscess. At this point, the dentist will have to perform a more complicated procedure known as a root canal and remove the tooth’s nerve.

That’s what happened to Kokomo, Ind., senior Becca J., who has undergone two root canals. “Candy was my favorite thing,” she says. “I’d have some before bed and then go to sleep without brushing my teeth.” Becca knew there was a problem when she started feeling intense pain, “like a shock,” when she ate.

Becca was able to get help soon after she started feeling pain. Twelve-year-old Deamonte Driver from Maryland wasn’t so lucky–the bacteria from his severely infected tooth spread to his brain, and he died. Deaths from tooth infections are extremely rare, but they can happen if the infections are left untreated.

Gums are important too!

If you don’t brush and floss regularly, you’re also at risk for developing gum disease. Not only will your gums bleed and swell, they’ll eventually pull away from your teeth permanently. You’ll be in pain, and your breath will smell. “Worst case,” Ramer adds, “you’ll lose your teeth.” While it’s more common to see adults with tooth loss from gum disease, if you consistently neglect your teeth, it can happen to you now.

Sweets aren’t the only cavity culprit. Sure, candy plays a huge role in tooth decay. But so do high-sugar, high-carbohydrate beverages, such as fruit juices and soft drinks. Even diet soft drinks contain phosphoric acid, which can lead to tooth erosion. And according to Berlocher, “sports drinks are horrible for teeth.”

That’s not to say that you shouldn’t have a sports drink if you’re actually playing sports, but you definitely shouldn’t guzzle one all day long. And after indulging in the occasional sugary beverage, soft drink, or sports drink, you should immediately rinse your mouth out with water, Berlocher recommends. That can help wash away many of the sugars left behind by sweet drinks. (Rinsing won’t work for food, so you still have to brush and floss after you eat!)

Brushing and flossing are no-brainers. Caitlin keeps cavities at bay by brushing her teeth two or three times a day, as recommended by dentists. “I even floss while I’m in the car sometimes,” she says.

It doesn’t matter whether you use an electric or regular toothbrush, according to Berlocher. They both work as long as you spend enough time brushing. Two full minutes twice a day is the absolute minimum. Choose a brush with soft bristles to avoid irritating your gums, and make sure to use toothpaste with fluoride, a mineral that has been proved to help prevent cavities.

Flossing is an important part of oral hygiene because it helps remove plaque from between your teeth, where a brush can’t reach. It’s not important what kind of floss you use, though waxed floss can be easier. The key thing is that you do it at least once, and ideally twice, a day.

There are even some treatments that can help give you a leg up on cavity prevention. Sealants are a protective coating that your dentist can put in the pits and fissures in your back teeth-those spots that are sometimes too small for even a single toothbrush bristle to reach. The coating can last up to 10 years, and it helps keep out cavity-causing bacteria. And regular fluoride treatments can help strengthen weak spots on the tooth and prevent tooth decay.

Braces make brushing trickier. Don’t let braces keep you from staying on top of your routine. “Braces double or triple the difficulty of oral hygiene,” Berlocher says. “It’s harder to scrub away the bacteria.” Maneuvering around all those brackets and wires in your mouth can be tough, so it’s important that you take the extra time and effort to make sure your toothbrush has reached every exposed tooth surface.

And ask your orthodontist about a proxy brush. That has a special shape designed to make brushing teeth with braces more effective. “Antibacterial mouthwashes can also help,” Berlocher says.

Cavities aren’t the only things that can cost you teeth!

“Kids involved in sports who don’t wear a mouth guard are at a much higher risk of losing or damaging their teeth” than kids who do wear mouth guards, Ramer says.

And mouth guards aren’t just for football players–you can lose a tooth in any sport, from wrestling and soccer to baseball and softball. “You don’t think it can happen to you until you’re standing there with your tooth in your hand,” Berlocher says. You can get a moldable mouth guard at a sporting goods store or a custom-fitted one from your dentist.

If you do get a tooth knocked out, don’t panic. Rinse it off, place it back in the socket, and get to a dentist right away. If that’s just too painful (or gross!), put it in liquid–milk is a great choice. Go to the dentist immediately because chances are he or she can put the tooth back.

Bottom line? Neglecting your teeth can have serious consequences, something Becca learned the hard way. “Take care of your teeth!” she advises. “If you don’t, you’ll end up in a lot of pain.”

Say Aah

Curtis S., a 10th grader from Spring Hill, Fla., has a fairly common fear. Going to the dentist, he says, “scares me to death. I really have to psych myself out to go.”

Twice-yearly visits to the dentist are a crucial component of keeping your teeth healthy. Dentists and hygienists understand patient concerns and do all they can to make the experience pleasant. The next time you feel anxious or panicked, try these tips to calm your nerves.


Distract yourself. “I bring my headphones and listen to my iPod,” says Caitlin G. of New Port Richey, Fla. So long, drill noise!

Communicate your fears and concerns. “Tell your provider if you’re sensitive or scared: American Dental Hygienists’ Association President Lynn Ramer says. That way, he or she can address your concerns and maybe help you feel a little better.

Picture yourself somewhere that you like to be, like at the beach.

Think About It …

How might your life be different if you lost your teeth? What everyday activities would be more challenging?

Key Points

1. Taking care of your teeth can prevent health problems.

2. Brushing and flossing help protect teeth from cavities and gums from gum disease.

3. Candy, soft drinks, and sports drinks can wear away at teeth.

4. Sports are a big cause of tooth injuries, and the right protective gear can keep your teeth safe.

Critical Thinking

How might life be different if you were to lose your teeth to illness or injury? What everyday activities would be more challenging?

Extension Activity

Invite a dental hygienist to visit your classroom. He or she can demonstrate proper brushing and flossing techniques, answer students’ questions about oral health, and talk about new improvements in dental care.


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* ADHA: Proper Flossing flossing.htm

* Palo Alto Medical Foundation diseases/mouth.html

Taking Care of Teeth

Directions: Read the article “Nothing but the Tooth” (page 8). Check out the illustration below. Then research teeth and oral health, and on a separate piece of paper, answer the questions.

1. For each part of the tooth named above, list which body system it belongs to, what its function is, and what illnesses and diseases can affect it.

2. Besides good tooth-care practices, what other habits and behaviors can affect a person’s dental and oral health?

3. Using the article and your research, write a script instructing young children on how to care for their teeth. Be sure to include both good brushing and flossing techniques, and try to use language that children can comprehend. If you’re artistically inclined, try creating drawings to go with the script, and combine them into a comic or picture book.

Middlekauff, Tracey

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