If you know anything about dental disease, then you know bacteria ranks high on the Usual Suspects list. Tooth decay gets its start from acid produced by bacteria; periodontal (gum) disease is often triggered by bacteria that infect the gums.
But the particular strains of bacteria that can cause dental disease are a small percentage of the 10,000-plus species inhabiting your mouth. The rest, numbering in the millions, are fairly benign—and some, as recent research is now showing, play a sizeable role in protecting your teeth and gums against other malicious bacteria, fungi and viruses.
Dr. Aaron Weinberg, a dental researcher at Case Western Reserve University, has been investigating these protective bacteria for many years. His research began with a scientific conundrum: although the mouth has one of the highest densities of bacterial populations, wounds in the mouth tend to heal quickly.
The answer, he believes, originates with human beta defensins (hBDs), substances produced by cells in the lining of the mouth that are natural antibiotics against disease. He has found that certain bacteria actually help stimulate their production.
This isn't just an interesting fact about the body's defenses and immune system. During his research, Dr. Weinberg was able to identify the agent within the bacteria that triggered hBD production. This has opened up a new line of research: The possibility that harnessing this agent might help assist in our treatment of infection by boosting the body's defensive capabilities.
For example, researchers have proposed including a form of the agent in toothpaste. Over time, this might stimulate hBD production and guard the mouth against the development of dental diseases like gum disease.
These possibilities all come from our increasing knowledge and understanding of the microscopic world around us, especially in our mouths. Bacteria are much more complex than we may have realized—not all are our enemies, and some are definitely our friends. Learning more may open up new ways to keep our teeth and gums healthy.
Think no one is looking at your smile when you’re out in public? Nick Jonas’ recent experience might convince you otherwise. While the Jonas Brothers were performing during the 2020 Grammys, fans watching on television picked up on some dark matter between his teeth.
To say Twitter lit up is an understatement. For many, it was that thing you couldn’t unsee: Forget the performance, what was that between his teeth? Jonas later fessed up by tweeting, “…At least you all know I eat my greens.”
We’re sure Nick and his brothers take care of their teeth, as most any high-profile entertainer would. You can probably attribute his dental faux pas to trying to squeeze in some nourishment during a rushed performance schedule.
Still, the Grammy incident (Spinachgate?) shows that people do notice when your teeth aren’t as clean as they should be. To avoid that embarrassment, here are some handy tips for keeping your teeth looking their best while you’re on the go.
Start with a clean mouth. You’re more apt to collect food debris during the day if you have built-up plaque on your teeth. This sticky bacterial biofilm attracts new food particles like a magnet. Remove plaque by thoroughly brushing and flossing before you head out the door.
Rinse after eating. Although your saliva helps clear leftover food from your mouth, it may not adequately flush away all the debris. You can assist this process by swishing and rinsing with clean water after a meal.
Keep a little floss handy. Even after rinsing, stubborn bits of food can remain lodged between teeth. So just in case, keep a small bit of emergency floss (or a floss pick) in your purse or wallet to remove any debris you see or feel between your teeth.
Watch what you eat. Some foods—like popcorn, sticky snacks or fibrous vegetables—are notorious for sticking in teeth. Try to avoid eating these foods right before a public appearance where your smile may be critical.
And here’s an added bonus: Not only will these tips help keep your smile attractive on the go, they’ll also help keep it healthy. Rinsing with water, for example, helps lower your mouth’s acid level after eating, a prime factor in tooth decay. And flossing, both as a regular practice and for occasional stuck food, decreases plaque and subsequently your risk of tooth decay and gum disease.
Remember, a healthy mouth is the starting place for a beautiful smile. Keep it that way with dedicated hygiene habits at home or on the go.
Other than tooth decay, children don't encounter dental disease to the extent adults do. But injuries are another story: More than 5 million teeth are knocked loose each year, and a high percentage involve children. Roughly a third of these and similar children's injuries are sports-related.
April is National Facial Protection Month: Several oral and facial health organizations, including the American Association of Orthodontists, have joined together to raise awareness about the risks of injury to the face and mouth, especially among children. Many of these injuries have long-term consequences with lifetime treatment costs in the thousands of dollars.
But as the name implies, this awareness month is also about protection—what you can do to help your child avoid a costly and devastating dental injury. Top of the list: Have your child wear an athletic mouthguard during all contact sports activities (including practices).
The National Federation of State High School Associations mandates mouthguard wear for football, lacrosse, and ice and field hockey. But those aren't the only sporting activities where a mouthguard should be standard equipment: In fact, basketball has more orofacial injuries each year than any other sport. Generally, mouthguards should be worn for any sports activity that involves potential contact with other players or objects.
There is a variety of mouthguard choices, but most fall into two basic categories, “boil and bite” and custom-made. The former, readily available in retail sports stores, get their name from the procedure employed when first purchased to adjust their fit to an individual player. Out of the package, they should be soaked in hot or boiling water until softened, and then placed in the wearer's mouth to bite down on. After they cool, they'll retain that bite pattern.
Boil and bite guards are relatively inexpensive, but the fit isn't as precise as a mouthguard that is custom-made by a dentist. This can lead to comfort issues—and players are less likely to wear an uncomfortable mouthguard.
Custom mouthguards, on the other hand, have a more accurate fit, allowing them to be thinner and more comfortable. They also provide the highest level of protection against blows to the face and mouth. These are more costly than boil and bite guards, and younger athletes may need a replacement every few years to accommodate jaw growth development. But compared to the physical, emotional and financial cost of a dental injury, custom mouthguards are worth the investment.
A mouth or face injury can happen in an instant and result in damage that can have lingering effects for years. For the best protection, see that your star athlete has and wears a custom mouthguard.
Taking care of your child’s teeth is a high priority, not only for their health now but for the future too. And that means dealing with their teeth’s most common and formidable enemy, tooth decay.
Your focus, of course, should be on preventing decay through good oral hygiene practices, a healthy diet low in foods with added sugar and regular office visits for cleaning and checkups. But some children at higher risk or who’ve already encountered tooth decay may also need a little extra help in the form of dental sealants.
The most common use of sealants addresses a weakness in young teeth that disease-causing bacteria exploit. Deep grooves known as pits and fissures form within the biting surfaces of developing back teeth and in the rear of front teeth.Â It’s very difficult to reach these areas with daily brushing, so some plaque may be left behind (hence the importance of semi-annual office cleanings).
Inside the mouth, these pits and fissures are in a warm and moist environment and are a haven for bacteria that feed on plaque and produce high levels of acid as a by-product. The acid softens enamel to eventually create a hole, or a “cavity” in the tooth. Children’s young enamel is highly susceptible to this process — it hasn’t developed enough strength to resist the adverse effects of acid.
A “pit and fissure” sealant made of resin fills in the grooves in the teeth to inhibit the buildup of plaque — a kind of “mini” filling. It’s an added layer of protection that complements other prevention efforts. But applying them isn’t an automatic practice — we only recommend it for children at high risk, especially where decay is beginning or it appears the conditions are conducive for it. When needed, though, it can be quite effective in preventing decay or minimizing its effects.
The best way to know if your child could benefit from a sealant is to have them undergo a complete dental exam. From there we can advise you on whether a sealant application is an important investment in their current and future health.
If you would like more information on dental disease prevention for children, please contact us or schedule an appointment for a consultation. You can also learn more about this topic by reading the Dear Doctor magazine article “Sealants for Children.”
Applying braces or clear aligners to move misaligned teeth is only part of an orthodontist's overall mission to eliminate poor bites (malocclusions). Sometimes a malocclusion isn't caused by the teeth at all—the size of the jaw is the problem!
One type in particular, a cross-bite, often happens because the upper jaw has developed too narrowly. As a result, many of the upper teeth fit inside the lower, the opposite of normal. But a tool called a palatal expander can alleviate the problem if it's applied at an early enough age.
The device works because the upper jawbone initially forms as two halves that fit together along a center line in the roof of the mouth (the palate) running from the back of the mouth to the front. These two bone halves remain separate during childhood to facilitate jaw growth, but eventually fuse around puberty.
Consisting of two sets of wire arms joined together by a hinge mechanism in the middle, the expander device is positioned up against the palate. The orthodontist extends each arm to press against the inside of the back teeth, then adds more outward pressure by turning the mechanism in the middle with a small key. During wear, the patient or caregiver will turn the mechanism in the same way to keep up the pressure on the two sides of the jaw.
This continual pressure keeps the two bones moving away from each other and maintaining a center gap between them. In response, more bone forms on the two halves to fill the gap. In time, the newly formed bone should widen the jaw enough to correct any developing malocclusion.
Timing is everything with a palatal expander—if not used before the jaw bones fuse, the patient will need a surgical procedure to separate the bones to pursue treatment. To catch the problem early enough, children should have an orthodontic evaluation on or before they turn six. An orthodontist may be able to identify this or other emerging bite problems and intervene before it becomes worse. Taking this approach can help save you and your child more expensive orthodontic treatment down the road.
If you would like more information on correcting poor bites, please contact us or schedule an appointment for a consultation. You can also learn more about this topic by reading the Dear Doctor magazine article “Palatal Expanders: Orthodontics is more than just Moving Teeth.”
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