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Pregnant or have a child? Learn how to care for your child's teeth.

What teeth are made of

Your tooth looks solid, but it is a living thing with many layers. The hard enamel outside protects a softer inner tissue, the dentin. In the center of the tooth is a space which holds nerves and blood vessels, called the pulp. The tooth is held in the jawbone with the help of a ligament and other tissues. When your teeth and gums are healthy, teeth are firmly connected to the jaw. This helps you eat and speak normally.

The mouth-body connection

Taking good care of your teeth and gums isn't just about preventing cavities or bad breath. The mouth is a window into the health of the body. It can show if you are not eating foods that are best for you or signal that you may be at risk for a disease. Diseases that affect the entire body (such as leukemia or diabetes) may first be noticed because of gum disease or other oral problems.

The mouth is filled with many bacteria, some linked to tooth decay and gum disease, also known as periodontal (perry-o-DON-tal) disease. Periodontal disease may be connected with diabetes and cardiovascular disease (heart disease and stroke). However, a link between these conditions and periodontal disease does not mean that one condition causes the other.

Keeping your mouth clean

Daily cleanings are important to prevent tooth decay and gum disease. This is because your teeth are covered with a sticky film of bacteria called plaque. Plaque that is not removed can irritate the gum tissue, making the gums swollen or causing them to bleed. This is called gingivitis, the early stage of periodontal (gum) disease.

Brushing and cleaning between the teeth daily helps remove food particles and plaque from the mouth. Here are some tips on making good oral care part of your daily routine.

Brushing - Brush your teeth well twice a day with fluoride toothpaste. Unless your dentist recommends otherwise, select a soft-bristled toothbrush in a size and shape that will fit your mouth comfortably. Get a new toothbrush when the bristles show signs of wear, usually after about three months.

Flossing - Use floss or another between-the-teeth cleaner every day to remove bits of food and plaque from under the gumline and between the teeth places your toothbrush can't reach. If you have trouble handling floss, you may find it helpful to use a floss holder or other between-the-teeth cleaners, which include special picks or narrow brushes that reach between teeth. If you need help, ask your dentist or dental hygienist.

Regular dental visits are important

Although you may carefully brush and clean between your teeth each day, your smile needs and deserves a regular professional cleaning at the dental office. There are lots of good reasons to visit your dentist:

Tobacco means trouble

If you smoke or chew tobacco, you are setting yourself up for trouble. Consider these tobacco-related threats to your oral health:

Make healthy food choices

Why is a healthy diet important?

A healthy diet:

You can have a healthy diet by following these simple steps:

Gum disease

Gum disease, also called periodontal disease, is very common. It affects people of all ages, and many do not even know they have it. Finding the disease is the first step in preventing tooth loss.

What is periodontal disease?

Periodontal disease is an infection and inflammation that affects the tissues and bone that support teeth.

Healthy gum tissue fits like a cuff around each tooth. When someone has periodontal disease, the gum tissue pulls away from the tooth. As the disease gets worse, the tissue and bone that support the tooth are destroyed. Over time, teeth may fall out or need to be removed. Treating gum disease in the early stages can help prevent tooth loss.

How do I know if I have gum disease?

It can be hard to know. You can have periodontal disease without clear symptoms. That's why regular dental exams are so important. If you notice any of these signs, see your dentist:

What causes periodontal disease?

Periodontal disease is caused by plaque, a sticky film that is always forming on your teeth. Plaque contains bacteria that produce harmful toxins. If teeth are not cleaned well, the toxins can irritate and inflame the gums.

Inflamed gums can pull away from the teeth and form spaces called pockets. The pockets provide a space for more bacteria. If the infected pockets are not treated, the disease can get worse. The bone and other tissues that support teeth are damaged.

Other factors that may contribute to gum diseases include:

Periodontal treatment

Patients with periodontal, or gum, disease usually need more frequent dental visits than the average patient. Your dental team can treat the disease with special deep cleanings, sometimes combined with medication to treat the infection. Advanced gum disease may require additional treatment.

You can fight periodontal disease with good oral care, regular dental visits, a healthy diet, and by avoiding tobacco.

Tooth decay

What is tooth decay, and why is it a problem?
Tooth decay is a disease that damages and breaks down teeth. A tooth has an outer layer (enamel), a middle layer (dentin), and a center (pulp). The more layers affected by decay, the worse the damage.

Tooth decay is a serious public health problem. It is four times more common than asthma among teens aged 14 to 17 years. Untreated tooth decay can lead to pain, loss of teeth, and even loss of confidence. People with tooth pain often cannot get through their daily routines. They cannot eat or sleep properly, and may miss days of work or school.

An abscess (pus-filled sac) from a cavity can cause serious or even life-threatening infections when not properly treated. It is much simpler and more affordable to prevent tooth decay than to repair a decayed tooth.

What causes tooth decay?
Bacteria in the mouth feed on the sugars found in foods and drinks. The bacteria produce acids that attack the teeth. Mouth bacteria thrive on sugar found in many foods and drinks, not just candy - soda pop, sports drinks, fruit juice, and even milk contain sugar that can lead to tooth decay. Each time these foods and drinks are consumed, acids attack the teeth for 20 minutes or longer.

When you have sugary foods or drinks many times a day, or sip on the same sugary drink for long periods of time, the acid attacks your tooth enamel again and again. The acid eats away at the tooth, and can cause decay. A hole called a cavity can form. If not treated, tooth decay can cause an abscess and can lead to serious infections.

Who gets tooth decay?
People of all ages can get tooth decay. Risk may increase among those who:

Common places where decay forms
Tooth decay can damage any tooth. It often occurs between the teeth and in the grooves of the back teeth, where bits of food collect. Back teeth are harder to keep clean because they are not as easy to reach. Decay also can form at the tooth root and go below the gum line.

Do you have tooth decay?
Tooth decay can get worse quickly, but it often takes months or years for a cavity to develop. Symptoms of tooth decay can include spots on the teeth, bad breath, and loose fillings. Tell your dentist if your teeth are sensitive to heat or cold or if you have any tooth pain. Your dentist will examine your teeth and take X-rays if necessary.

Tooth decay treatment
Treatment depends on how early the decay is caught. Before cavities form, fluoride treatments may solve the problem. If you have a cavity, you'll need a filling. A large cavity may need a crown to replace the decayed part of the tooth. If the center (pulp) of your tooth is involved, root canal treatment may be your last chance to save the tooth. Finally, a badly damaged tooth might have to be pulled and replaced. Your dentist will discuss options and plan the best way to get your mouth healthy again.

By following a healthy oral care routine, making smart food choices, and visiting your dentist regularly, you can lower your risk for tooth decay. Chewing sugarless gum with the ADA Seal of Acceptance after eating can also help to increase saliva flow and rinse away sugars.