Ever notice a bit of blood on your toothbrush?
The last time you flossed (probably when Moses was a boy), did your gums bleed, causing you to think you were doing it wrong? Do you frequently go at least three days without flossing? If the answer is yes to any, or all, of the above questions, then you have (play menacing music) . . . gum disease.
Now, if you’re like most people, you’re probably in denial. You think everyone’s gums bleed and it’s no big deal. And for some people it never will be a big deal. The problem is, by the time you notice there’s something wrong it’s too late to fix it easily. Imagine if any other part of your body bled when you touched it. Obviously, you’d be thinking something was wrong. And you’d be right. So what is gum disease? I’m glad you asked. That film that accumulates on your teeth if you don’t brush for a while is called plaque. It contains the bugs (bacteria) that cause gum disease. If the bugs get left close to the gum for two-to-three days then the toxins they produce seep into the gums and cause infection. That’s when the gums start to bleed. But it gets worse.
Say the plaque gets left there for an extended period of time. After a while it gets hard and forms ledges of stuff called calculus or tartar. Then more plaque accumulates. As hard as you try, you’ll never get rid of it all. Now the infection has really taken hold. But it gets even worse.
The colonies of bacteria that build up between the teeth and gums burrow down to feast on their favorite food—your jawbone. When this happens, the bone around the tooth is slowly dissolved by the infection until there is no bone left to hold the tooth. It then becomes loose and falls out, or it has to be pulled out. Sounds great, doesn’t it? Don’t worry though. This only happens in 47 percent of people over 30. OK, so I’m a little worried that I might have gum disease. It’s not like it can kill me, right? We used to think that. It seems, however, that the peskier the bacteria are the more likely they are to cross through the bleeding gums and into the bloodstream. Now they can set up shop anywhere in the body, causing even more inflammation.
We have known for a few years about the positive link between gum disease and artery disease. That means that if you have gum disease you are more likely to have a heart attack or a stroke. Even more recent research is linking gum disease to Alzheimer’s and cancer of the head and neck as well. That’s not so good.
OK, you’ve scared me. What can I do?
A few simple steps will, in most cases, stop things from getting worse:
- The hard deposits (calculus) need to be removed from your teeth. This has to be done by your hygienist or dentist. You can’t eliminate the infection until all of these deposits are removed. It may only take one visit, or it may take four or more visits, depending on how bad it is.
- You need to brush your teeth really well (we’re talking three-to-four minutes) at least once a day. When you do this, be sure to massage the bristles into the gums to try to make them bleed. The areas you haven’t been brushing properly will bleed. Don’t worry about this. After five-to-six days, these areas will stop bleeding, which will tell you they are now healthier. An electric tooth brush will do a better job for many people; however, a normal toothbrush will work fine if used properly. (Don’t worry, we’ll show you what “properly” means.)
- You have to clean between your teeth every day. Once a day is fine, preferably just before you go to bed. Flossing works best when done properly. (We’ll show you what “properly” means. Are you sensing a theme here yet?) Interdental brushes (which come in a variety of shapes, sizes, and brands) are easier for some people to use and may suit you better. Flossing and interdental brushing will also cause bleeding for the first week if you haven’t been doing it daily, or haven’t been doing it properly. Ignore the blood to start with; it’s a sign you’re doing it right. Whatever you do, just do something and do it daily. Remember, you don’t need to clean between every tooth every day, just the ones you want to keep; don’t worry about the rest. (I don’t know if that’s technically a joke or irony. Regardless I hope the message is sinking in.)
- Keep getting your teeth professionally cleaned. Unfortunately, it is almost impossible to keep your teeth completely clean on your own. In most cases, it is recommended that you return to the dentist every three months until things are under control. Once your condition is stable the interval may get pushed out to every six months.