When it comes to multi-tasking, our mouth is a professional! It is vital for eating, drinking, taste, breathing, and verbal communication. We use it to express feelings and mood – the quality of our smile not only affects our mental well-being (the more you smile the happier you feel) but also our confidence and self-esteem, particularly in the teenage years.
Keeping the mouth healthy and looking good is essential for overall good health and mental well-being.
Why is oral hygiene so important?
Like many areas of the body, the mouth is teeming with bacteria — most of them harmless. Normally the body's natural defenses, and good oral health care, can keep these bacteria under control.
But when oral hygiene is poor, the well known unpleasant diseases occur:
- Gingivitis (inflammed gums)
- Dental caries (cavities)
- Halitosis (bad breath), and
- Xerostomia (dry mouth)
What is less well known is that poor oral hygiene contributes to:
- Throat and chest infections
- Oral thrush
- Stroke, and
- Heart attack
While stroke and heart attack aren’t problems which commonly crop up early in life, the proper dental hygiene habits which can help avoid them are established early in life.
In a healthy mouth the oral mucosa and tongue should be pink and moist with smooth, moist lips and clean teeth.
What does a healthy mouth look like?
A healthy mouth is a non-acidic with a pH (acidity) of 7 or above. Tooth roots begin to dissolve as this pH gets below neutral (at pH 6.5) and when acidity levels drop to pH 5.5 or lower, teeth will erode, become discoloured, and be at risk for cavities.
All acidity weakens teeth, but it is the amount of time that acids are in contact with teeth that determines the severity of the damage. Erosion and decay are worse when people sip drinks or nibble acidic foods. Foods with a high sugar content are very acidic.
While baby teeth may only be temporary, it's no less important to take good care of them now and to establish the habits that will lead to a lifetime of dental health. Decayed or lost baby teeth can interfere with good nutrition and speech development, and by not holding a proper place for permanent teeth, they can make the permanent ones come in crooked.
Tooth brushing can begin as soon as those first teeth have poked through the gums. Use a clean, damp washcloth, a gauze pad, or a throwaway finger brush to gently wipe clean the first teeth and the front of the tongue, after meals and at bedtime. Toothbrushes can also be used, but they should be very soft.
Teeth should be brushed at least twice a day – in the morning and just before bed. Spend 2 minutes brushing, concentrating a good portion of this time on the back molars. This is an area where cavities often first develop.
Replace the toothbrush every 3 or 4 months, or sooner if it shows signs of wear. Never share a toothbrush with others.
Start flossing your child's teeth once a day as soon as two teeth emerge that touch. The use of floss sticks or picks instead of regular string floss may be easier for both you and your child.
Most children lack the coordination to brush or floss their teeth on their own until about the age of 6 or 7. Until then, you will need to assist them.
Remember that the best way to teach children how to brush their teeth is to lead by example.
Between visits to the dentist or school dental therapist, it's a good idea to check the health of teeth and gums regularly.
Gently lift the top lip once a month to check inside the mouth. It’s a quick and easy way to see whether decay is present in its early, treatable stages.
- White spots at the gumline, particularly on the upper front teeth
- Brown or yellow stains, or pieces of missing teeth
- Red, puffy or bleeding gums. They should look pink and healthy
- If you have any concerns, you should seek professional advice
Dental care in New Zealand
From birth to Year 8, free dental care is available at school or community dental clinics from a dental therapist. Dental therapists have a three year degree and can provide dental examinations and fillings; apply fluoride and fissure sealants; extract primary teeth and provide general oral health education.
For care beyond the scope of dental therapy practice, children are referred to an appropriate contracting dental practitioner.
Adolescents are also eligible for free basic dental care from school Year 9 until their 18th birthday. This service is provided by private dentists (who have a five year degree) that are contracted by District Health Boards under the Combined Dental Agreement.
Why looking good is important too - the benefits of orthodontics
An attractive smile and improved self-image is just one of the benefits of an orthodontic treatment. Alleviating and preventing physical health problems is just as important.
Without treatment, orthodontic problems can lead to:
- Tooth decay
- Gum disease
- Bone destruction
- Chewing and digestive difficulties
- Speech impairments
- Tooth loss and other dental injuries
Psychological benefits include:
- Increased confidence
- Improved self-acceptance and well being
- Enhanced attractiveness
Dentists are health care practitioners that specialise in the diagnosis, prevention, and treatment of diseases and conditions of the mouth.
Orthodontists are dentists who've completed an additional two to three years of full-time, specialised university education in orthodontics. Orthodontists specialise in straightening teeth, making them bite together properly and creating a great smile.