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Frequently Asked Questions

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Answers to the most Frequently Asked Questions about Dental Care

What is tooth erosion?

Tooth erosion occurs when the enamel—or the tooth’s thin, hard outer covering—is worn away. Some erosion happens naturally over a person’s lifetime, but excess erosion can lead to tooth pain and sensitivity. The following factors can heighten tooth erosion:

  • Environmental factors, such as friction, wear and tear, and stress
  • Genetics/heredity
  • Soft drinks and fruit drinks, both of which have high acid levels
  • Dry mouth or low flow of saliva
  • A diet high in sugar and starches
  • Acid reflux disease, or GERD
  • Medications, such as antihistamines and aspirin

What causes dry mouth?

Dry mouth can be caused by a wide variety of factors: nervousness, prescription medication (such as antihistamines, diuretics, painkillers, etc.), tobacco use, and methamphetamine use, to name a few. It can be temporary and harmless, such as in the case of dry mouth caused by anxiety before giving a speech, or chronic. Chronic dry mouth can cause problems like tooth decay and bad breath, because saliva contains enzymes that ward off bacteria and neutralize acids.

I've heard the health of your mouth is linked to other diseases. Is this true?

Yes, studies show that your oral health affects, and is affected by, other health conditions throughout the body. One reason is that your mouth is filled with bacteria, and poor dental hygiene can allow that bacteria to run amok and cause infection and tooth decay. Severe gum infection, or periodontitis, has been linked to a number of health problems, including endocarditis (an infection in the heart’s inner lining), stroke, clogged arteries, osteoporosis, and Alzheimer’s disease.

What is an abcessed tooth?

When a tooth is severely decayed, it can become abscessed, which means it develops a painful infection between the tooth’s root and the gum. Symptoms of an abscessed tooth include severe toothache, throbbing or shooting pain, fever, swollen lymph nodes in the neck, gum redness/swelling, pain when chewing, putrid odor to the breath, and hot/cold sensitivity.

Are piercings in the mouth safe? What problems can they cause?

Piercings inside your mouth, such as a tongue or labret piercing, can be more risky than other piercings because of the amount of bacteria and toxins in your mouth. Oral piercings can increase the risk of infection, gum disease, nerve damage or numbness at the piercing site, tooth damage from the metal jewelry, or excessive drooling and altered sense of taste. They can also serve as a convenient “in” for transmitted diseases such as herpes and hepatitis. However, when done by a trained professional and with careful attention to correct aftercare, oral piercings can cause just minimal discomfort and heal quickly with no problems. Be sure to select a reputable, sanitary piercing studio and don’t cut corners in caring for the piercing as it heals. Information makes all the difference.

Do whitening toothpastes really work?

As a matter of fact, some do. But don’t expect a miracle. Most whitening toothpastes combine gentle abrasives with chemicals that dissolve stains, and can take two to six weeks of twice-daily use to make a difference. Some whitening toothpastes also contain a chemical called blue covarine that lessens the yellow tinge of normal teeth, and these products might show results immediately. Many people use whitening toothpaste to keep their pearly whites bright after a bleaching.

What causes tooth sensitivity?

It’s no fun when taking a sip of cold soda or hot coffee can cause you to wince in pain. Tooth sensitivity occurs when the protective layers of your teeth are worn down or destroyed. Here are some ways that can happen:

  • Overly vigorous brushing
  • Gum disease
  • Cracked or broken tooth
  • Habit of grinding teeth
  • Use of whitening toothpaste or mouthwash (due to chemicals in these products)
  • Tooth decay

What is a calculus?

Calculus is another name for tartar, a type of hardened plaque that can accumulate on teeth near the gum line. Due to its rough surface, tartar provides an ideal place for even more plaque to grow. Your dentist will remove tartar buildup at your twice-yearly dental cleanings. Between dental appointments, some people use an anti-tartar toothpaste to stave off excess buildup.

What does bruxism mean and why is it bad?

Bruxism is a term used for teeth grinding or excessive jaw-clenching. Many people do it unconsciously, both during the day and while they sleep. While bruxism can be mild and harmless for some people, extreme bruxism can cause a range of problems, from increased tooth erosion to headaches and jaw problems. It can be caused by factors as varied as anxiety and stress, as a side effect to some medications, or a misalignment of parts of the jaw.

What causes canker sores and what can I do about them?

Ranging from mild and annoying to severe and chronic, canker sores can be a pain. Virtually small ulcers in the mouth, they are thought to be caused by stress or tissue injury. The more complex type of canker sores can be brought on by deeper underlying causes, such as vitamin or mineral deficiencies, compromised immune systems, or gastrointestinal diseases. While simple canker sores typically heal on their own in a few days, larger or longer-lasting sores can be treated with medicated rinses, steroid-based ointment, and prescription medication.

What is gingivitis?

Gingivitis is inflammation of the gums, or gingiva. It’s the most common type of periodontal disease and is most often caused by plaque buildup. Symptoms include swollen or red gum tissue, gum sensitivity, bleeding gums, and bad breath. Untreated, gingivitis can often lead to periodontitis, a more serious condition that can lead to tooth loss.

What is a cavity?

A tooth cavity, formally known as a carious lesion, is the result of a bacterial infection that eats away the hard, protective layers of the tooth. It’s caused by acid that forms in the mouth as food decomposes. That’s why regular brushing can be your first and best defense against tooth decay.

What exactly is a root canal?

Simply put, a root canal is a naturally occurring space inside the tooth that houses the pulp (soft inner layer of the tooth), nerves, and blood vessels—all of which make up the tooth’s “root.” When the root of a tooth is infected or badly decayed, we might recommend root canal surgery. Sounds scary, but it’s simply a way to remove the damaged tissue and restore the tooth to health. The procedure involves drilling down to the root canal area and removing the pulp, then disinfecting the space and putting in a filling to prevent bacteria from getting back in. Root canal surgery has developed a reputation for being extremely painful, but today’s dental technology has made it as simple as filling a cavity.

What is the difference between a silver and white filling?

Traditional silver fillings, also called dental amalgams, are made of silver, tin, copper, and mercury. White or tooth-colored fillings, called resin composite fillings, are made of plastic or ceramic. Each type has advantages, and it’s good for patients to know which one to choose and when. Because silver fillings are stronger, more durable and less expensive, they’re typically the best choice for hardworking teeth like molars. The advantage of ceramic and plastic fillings is that they are more aesthetic, blending into the tooth seamlessly and hiding the fact that a filling is there in the first place.

Are silver fillings safe?

This is a question that is still being hotly debated among dental professionals—because silver fillings are 50% mercury, and mercury can be harmful to health under some conditions. However, the type of mercury that is used in fillings is different from the dangerous mercury that can be found in fish from polluted water. According to the Mayo Clinic, studies have shown that the mercury level in fillings is far below the level that can cause health problems. It states there is no reason to avoid silver fillings or have existing ones replaced, unless a filling becomes damaged, excessively worn down, or you experience an allergic reaction to it.

Are mouthguards really necessary when I play sports?

Consider this: Athletes are 60 times more likely to damage their teeth when not wearing protective mouthguards. That statistic from the National Youth Sports Foundation says a lot. Injuries can include cracked, broken, and even lost teeth. Why risk the pain, expense, and unsightliness of unnecessary dental injuries? There’s no law saying you must wear a mouthguard, but if you value your smile, we highly recommend it.

Why do my gums bleed more when I am pregnant? What other changes can occur in my Mouth during pregnancy?

Pregnancy causes a vast array of hormonal changes in your body, and those changes can extend to your mouth. About 50% of pregnant women experience bleeding gums caused by pregnancy gingivitis—because the hormones make your gums more sensitive to bacteria. Another condition you might experience is a pyogenic granuloma, also called a pregnancy tumor. This is a benign mass that can grow on your gums. While it typically disappears once you give birth, you can also have it removed if it causes discomfort or difficulty. Other hormonal changes can cause a gum overgrowth (called an epulis), loose teeth, and increased risk of tooth decay along the gum line.

What factors cause tooth decay?

Most tooth decay can be warded off by regular brushing. Removing the plaque that builds up every day makes it less possible for bacteria to flourish. Here are some other factors that can promote tooth decay:

  • Foods that stick to your teeth
  • Frequent snacking and drinking
  • Dry mouth
  • Eating disorders, such as anorexia and bulimia
  • Methamphetamine use
  • Worn or damaged fillings
  • Lack of fluoride
  • Diabetes

Use of tobacco products

What are dental implants?

Dental implants are artificial tooth roots. They are inserted into the gum and integrate with, or bond to, the bone underneath. They form a sturdy foundation for dental prostheses such as a bridge or crown. Implants are a great solution for people who have missing teeth due to injury or disease.

What causes halitosis, or bad breath?

Bad breath is primarily caused by a buildup of bacteria in the mouth. Experts say that 80% of bad breath is due to oral causes, such as gum disease, trapped food particles in the tonsils, and unbrushed teeth and tongue. Other causes can include internal medical conditions, such as diabetes, liver disease, and chronic bronchitis. Dry mouth, acid reflux, and post-nasal drip can also cause bad breath.

When should I take my child to the dentist for the first time?

Good oral health requires early intervention. Most experts recommend that babies see a dentist anywhere between the time their first tooth appears to their first birthday. After age two, the every-six-months guideline kicks in.

What is fluoride and why is it important?

Fluoride is an important mineral for dental health. It helps to harden the enamel on teeth, so bacteria has to work extra hard to get inside. Since 1945, many communities have added fluoride to their water supplies and have seen dramatic decreases in the occurrence of cavities. If you don’t live in an area that provides fluoridated water, there are a number of products available, from toothpastes and mouthwashes to fluoride drops or tablets.

What are sealants?

Sealants are thin protective coatings painted onto deeply grooved teeth (like molars). Made of plastic, the sealant forms a strong barrier between bacteria and the tooth’s enamel. Because food can no longer get trapped in deep cracks and depressions, sealants help decrease the risk of developing cavities.

Is there a difference in effectiveness between a manual and electric toothbrush?

According to the ADA, manual toothbrushes can be just as effective as the electric models—it just takes more diligence and work. Manual toothbrushes are more sophisticated than ever today, with specially positioned bristles and contours to reach every spot in the mouth, and they cost less. Electric toothbrushes, which now come in a wide variety of styles and price points, can do the same work as a manual brush with a lot less human effort.

How often should I change my toothbrush?

About every three months—that’s the general consensus from most of the dental industry. Experts have shown that toothbrushes get worn and become less effective at removing plaque and bacteria after that time. Also, you should change your toothbrush whenever you get over a cold or flu—that will help you avoid re-catching the bug from germs left on your toothbrush.

When will my baby's teeth start growing in, and when is it normal to start losing them?

Every baby is different, but you can expect your child’s first tooth to appear anywhere from three months up to a year and a half or so. Typically, though, most babies’ chompers start making an appearance around six months—and children should have a full set of 20 baby teeth by age three. They won’t keep them long, however; most children lose their first tooth between the ages of four and six. If your child loses a tooth before age four, see your dentist.

Should I worry if the permanent teeth start coming in behind my child's baby teeth?

This condition, sometimes called “shark teeth,” isn’t dangerous—but it should be addressed. It tends to occur when there isn’t enough room in the child’s mouth for the permanent tooth to come up. If the baby tooth doesn’t get loose and fall out on its own, your dentist can remove the baby tooth quickly and painlessly.