Fight back when plaque and tartar attack

Your teeth and gums can be at the mercy of their enemies — plaque and tartar. But the good news is that you can be a hero for your healthy smile by saving it from these villains.

Even better, you don’t need any special powers or skills to protect your teeth, because a little know-how and the right daily oral health routine will go a long way. So let’s learn more about these criminal cavity causers and go over a few ways you can help prevent damage from plaque and tartar each day.

Know your enemies: What are plaque and tartar?

Plaque and tartar are common terms, but the distinction between the two isn’t as well-known. Since knowledge is power, here’s how to tell them apart:

Dental plaque: Plaque is a thin-film layer, loaded with bacteria, that forms constantly on everyone’s teeth. It's soft, sticky and colorless. It occurs when the bacteria in your mouth mix with sugary or starchy foods and drinks. The main symptom is a fuzzy feeling on your teeth when you run your tongue across them. Plaque can hide below the gumline and between the teeth, so make sure you brush there as well.

The key to avoiding plaque is to maintain a regular brushing and flossing routine. Otherwise, the plaque will remain and cause problems for your oral health:

  • The bacteria in plaque release acids that attack your tooth enamel, especially after you eat or drink something that is either sugary or full of carbs that will break down into sugar.
  • These acids can cause your tooth enamel to break down over time, eventually resulting in a cavity.
  • If this continues and the plaque is not removed through brushing and flossing or a visit to the dentist, it can harden into tartar.

Tartar (also called calculus): This is a buildup of hardened plaque that can form above and below the gum line. Taking care of plaque before it hardens into tartar is critical because tartar is a villain that holds on tight and collects more plaque. Once it forms, tartar can only be removed by a professional dental cleaning.

If you miss your regular dentist visits and don’t have it removed, tartar will continue to collect plaque. Plaque on tartar’s rough surface is very difficult to remove and will eventually lead to gum disease, an infection of the gums and bone that holds your teeth in place. After gum disease develops, it can cause pain, tooth loss, and other dental issues. It has also been linked to other health problems such as diabetes, heart disease, and stroke.

Make sure to tell your dentist if you regularly experience swelling or bleeding in your gums. Other early signs of gum disease to watch for include bad breath that doesn’t go away, even after brushing, and sensitivity to hot or cold foods. Proactively detecting any problems early on can help you avoid more costly procedures down the line.

What can you do to combat plaque and tartar?

Defending your oral health requires a little daily care. Creating and sticking to a simple daily oral health routine can help you avoid a buildup of plaque and tartar, which will keep your teeth and gums healthier overall.

For maximum smile protection, make sure your routine includes:

  • Brushing your teeth with a fluoride toothpaste twice a day for two minutes each time. Angle the bristles toward your gumline to reach beneath the gumline and between your teeth.
  • Replacing your toothbrush about every three to four months, or when it begins to look frayed, ensures it is effectively removing plaque.
  • Flossing daily to remove plaque and food debris from between teeth.
  • Visiting your dentist regularly for checkups and professional cleanings.
  • Eating a well-balanced diet and only consuming sugars and starches in moderation.

Did you know smoking also increases your chances of developing plaque, tartar and gum disease? Do your smile (and your overall health) a huge favor and don’t smoke, or take steps to quit smoking if you have already started. Free resources to help you quit are available through the SD QuitLine.