How to Keep Your Gums and Teeth Healthy

By Floria, Barbara

Brushing and flossing your teeth isn't hard to do, and doing both properly can help prevent gum disease and tooth loss.

Gum disease is caused by plaque--a sticky film made of bacteria, mucus and other particles--that forms on the teeth. When the plaque is not removed, it hardens into tarter that harbors bacteria, according to the American Dental Association (ADA). The bacteria in the plaque and tarter cause inflammation of the gums called gingivitis. Tartar can only be removed by a dental hygienist or dentist.

Gum disease has three stages:

  • Gingivitis, the early stage, is characterized by red, swollen gums that bleed easily. When caught early, the condition often can be reversed by proper brushing and flossing.

  • Periodontitis, which means inflammation around the tooth, is a more advanced form of gum disease that occurs when plaque that hasn't been removed hardens into tartar. This causes the gums to pull away from the teeth and form pockets of infected material. The bacterial toxins start to break down the bone and connective tissue hold the teeth in place, causing the teeth to loosen and fall out. It can be treated by scraping tartar off teeth roots or, if severe enough, with gum surgery.

  • Advanced periodontitis is characterized by further gum recession and bone destruction. At this stage, teeth may need to be extracted if periodontal surgery doesn't restore bone support.

Symptoms of periodontal disease usually appear when the condition is advanced. Symptoms are:

  • Bad breath that persists

  • Red, swollen, tender gums

  • Pain chewing

  • Loose or sensitive teeth

Risk factors

The following factors put a person at more risk for developing gingivitis:

  • Smoking or using chewing tobacco

  • Hormonal changes in girls and women

  • Diabetes

  • Certain medications


Good oral hygiene--including brushing and flossing at least once every day--can help prevent gum infections, cavities and tooth loss. Having your teeth cleaned and checked by a dentist or dental hygienist at least once a year also is important, the ADA says. No matter how well you brush, tartar and plaque can still build up and cause gum problems.

To brush correctly:

  • Do so in the morning and before going to sleep.

  • Use a soft-bristled brush and toothpaste that contains fluoride. If you can afford the cost, buy and use an electric toothbrush.

  • Place your toothbrush at a 45-degree angle against your gums and brush each tooth 15 to 20 times.

  • Move the brush gently, using short strokes; don't scrub.

  • Brush the outer tooth surfaces using short, back-and-forth strokes.

  • Brush the inner upper-front teeth by brushing vertically against them using short, downward strokes. Use short, upward strokes for lower inside teeth.

  • Brush the chewing surfaces of the teeth with short, back-and-forth strokes. Replace your toothbrush when it's worn or frayed--about every three or four months, experts say. You should also get a new toothbrush after you have had a cold, strep throat or similar illness.

Floss with care

Flossing helps remove plaque and food particles stuck between your teeth. To floss properly:

  • Cut off about 18 inches of floss and hold it tightly between your thumbs and forefingers. Guide it between your teeth using a gentle, rubbing motion.

  • When the floss reaches the gum line, curve it around one tooth. Gently rub the side of the tooth, moving the floss with up-and-down motions. Repeat this method on the rest of your teeth, remembering to floss the back side of your back teeth.

Watch what you eat

The foods you eat contribute to tooth decay when they combine with bacteria in your mouth. To protect your teeth:

  • Consume plenty of calcium-rich foods, such as milk, yogurt and cheese. Calcium maintains the bone the tooth roots are embedded in.  This is particularly important for the elderly and for children during development of both baby and adult teeth.

  • Avoid sticky sweets, such as soft candies, toffees, taffies and pastries. If you eat sweets, rinse your mouth with water afterward or brush your teeth if you have a chance.

  • If you chew gum, chew sugar-free brands.

Medical Reviewer: [Akin, Louise RN, BSN, Pam Wilcox, RDH, Sonis, Stephen DMD] Last Annual Review Date: 2011-05-25T00:00:00-06:00 Copyright: Copyright Health Ink & Vitality Communications