Have you ever looked at your floss and noticed something white and sticky on it? At first glance, that blob might seem like a stray piece of bread, but on closer inspection, you realize it’s something else. That something else happens to be dental plaque, enemy of your teeth and gums. When plaque is allowed to build up, it can eat away at enamel, causing cavities and decay. Worse, plaque that collects in the gums can cause low-grade infection that eventually matures into full-blown gum disease. Not only can gum disease cause tooth loss, but when left to advance, it can increase your chances of heart disease, stroke, and even certain types of cancer.
Knowing the ins and outs of dental plaque — where it comes from and how to get rid of it — can keep your mouth and body safe and healthy.
What Is Dental Plaque?
Plaque is a sticky and sometimes foul-smelling substance made up of food particles and saliva. More specifically, dental plaque is a biofilm, a scientific definition that describes a large mass of bacteria which adheres to a surface to feed, often developing a protective coating of proteins. At first, dental plaque is about the consistency of yogurt, meaning it can easily be cleaned with a toothbrush or floss. When allowed to develop, however, dental plaque can absorb minerals from your saliva to become tartar. Tartar is yellow or brownish and can only be cleaned by special dental instruments. Tartar formation can take as little as 24 hours. That’s why it’s so important to maintain a consistent oral hygiene schedule.
How Does It Form?
Plaque forms from bacteria that is already present within your mouth. Our body naturally delegates many functions to the trillions (maybe more) of bacteria that live in and outside our body. In our mouth alone, we so far have discovered around 8 billion bacteria. Through the process of competitive symbiosis, bacteria naturally limit the kind of strains which exist in out mouths. When fed certain foods like sugar and simple starch, Streptococcus mutans and other strains feed on this food source and quickly overpopulate the mouth, creating plaque that damages teeth and gums with their acidic by-products. These strains form plaque and eventually tartar.
How Do I Prevent Plaque from Damaging My Mouth?
You can manage plaque in three ways: diet, oral hygiene, and regularly scheduled dental appointments. Limiting plaque with diet is simple to understand but difficult to execute. All you have to do is limit your sugar and simple carb intake, which can help your body and mouth. The American Heart Association recommends no more than 35g of sugar a day, which is about 3 quarters of a vanilla latte.
To prevent plaque through oral hygiene, brush twice a day and floss at least once. Timing is also important, so you should try to brush before bed and when you wake up.
Getting into the dentist every six months for a checkup and cleaning is also an incredibly important part of the process. This allows your dentist to catch complications like gum disease before they can advance and cause serious damage.