A word to the wise

MAXWELL AIR FORCE BASE, Ala. -- As a dentist, I am always thinking of new ways to help my patients.

Sure, I can fix a badly decayed tooth, "after" the fact, but what I'd really like to do is prevent it from getting that way in the first place. Everyone already knows that, "you need to brush and floss more," but in today's busy world, oral hygiene is one of the many things vying for our attention. Sure, it only takes two minutes to brush and about the same to floss, but teeth are often times neglected. Why is that? It's probably because we don't spend a lot of time looking at them. After all, they are tucked away inside of our mouths and if they don't hurt, they must be okay, right?  The truth is people don't get cavities overnight. How could they? Tooth enamel is considered to be the hardest substance in the human body. It's even harder than your bones, but it is susceptible to the buildup of bacteria and the acid they produce.

Each tooth has five surfaces and most people have between 28 and 32 teeth, that leaves more than 140 areas where food particles and bacteria can accumulate. This buildup, better known as dental plaque, is considered to be a biofilm. Webster's Dictionary defines a biofilm as "a thin usually resistant layer of [bacteria] that forms on and coats various surfaces." They form on surfaces like swimming pools and teeth. You wouldn't swim in a dirty swimming pool, so why would you allow bacteria to form the same type of gunk on your teeth? If dental plaque stays in place too long the enamel on your teeth "will" breakdown, leading to cavities or holes in your teeth. During this phase many people begin noticing that something isn't quite right, whether it be sensitivity to cold and sweets or pain when chewing. Untreated, tooth decay can spread deeper inside of the tooth, eventually reaching the nerve, at which point the nerve gets infected. This is when you'd really feel something is wrong. A severe toothache can only be treated in two ways, with a root canal -- removing the nerve -- or by extraction -- pulling the tooth.

No one likes dental pain and many people don't like seeing the dentist, so why is tooth decay such a problem? What we eat and how often we eat is part of the problem. Sugary foods and drinks can accelerate the process, but poor oral hygiene is equally at fault. So when it's time for your next dental exam and I walk in the room, I might talk your ears off about the importance of good oral hygiene and how cavities are formed. Just before you tune me out or get lost in all of the technical jargon, listen real closely and you may hear the simpler message I'm trying to get across -- toothaches and dental work are no fun and they are easily avoided by an effort on your part to brush and floss more.

Just think, doing your part at home every day can prevent you from having bad breath, cavities, gum disease, painful numbing injections, root canals or even having to get your teeth pulled. The best part of it all is that you will get to keep your natural teeth, the rest of your life. Twenty years down the road, would you rather be smiling for a picture, talking with a friend, or chewing a delicious steak with a set of fake teeth or your very own strong and healthy real teeth?