Dental problems and oral health care
The thought of dental problems — and terms like “root canal,” “gum disease” and “wisdom teeth” — might make us feel a little uncomfortable. But when dental and oral health problems come up, it’s important to take care of them right away. And the good news is that good oral care may help prevent some major problems.
Common dental problems
Understanding common dental problems may help you prevent them — through good oral hygiene or by recognizing them early.
A toothache is exactly what it sounds like: pain in one of your teeth. It can be caused by a cavity, infection, grinding the teeth or some kind of trauma. If you develop a toothache, talk to your dentist. They may suggest over-the-counter pain medication to help provide relief. They may also recommend that you make an appointment right away — especially if the toothache lasts more than a day or if it’s accompanied by fever, pain when opening your mouth or an earache.1
Gum disease is usually simple to prevent and easy to treat when it starts, but if left untreated, it can lead to serious complications. The mildest form of gum disease is inflammation of the gums, called gingivitis, which you can often prevent and even reverse with regular brushing, flossing and teeth cleanings at your dentist’s office. Without treatment, gingivitis can turn into periodontitis, in which pockets of infection in your gums can permanently damage the gums and bones that support your teeth, leading to tooth loss.2
According to the World Health Organization, tooth decay — also called dental caries — is the most common noncommunicable disease in the world.3 Decay of teeth happens when bacteria in your mouth mingle with sugars from food and beverages, forming acid that attacks the tooth’s surface (the enamel) and taking important minerals away from it.
Early tooth decay may appear as small white spots where minerals have been lost. You can still reverse tooth decay at this point with the help of fluoride. If the enamel breaks down, though, a cavity will form.4
When tooth decay goes untreated and the enamel surface of the tooth develops a hole, it’s called a cavity. A tooth cavity can be painful and tend to get worse, causing infection that can make you sick.5 Dentists often treat cavities by removing the decayed parts of the tooth and then filling the cavity with a hard material. You can help prevent cavities with good oral hygiene like brushing, flossing, and regular visits to your dentist. Healthy eating and limiting sugary drinks and foods may also help.5
When the tissue inside of a tooth becomes infected, it’s called a dental abscess or tooth abscess. It’s not only extremely painful, but it’s also a serious condition that needs treatment right away. Usually caused by untreated cavities, these infections can spread from the tooth to other parts of the body, such as the neck or sinuses.6
When the tissue inside the tooth — called pulp — becomes swollen or infected, it must be removed to protect your tooth and prevent further infection. This is done with a root canal, done by a dentist or endodontist. In a root canal, the dentist will remove the affected pulp, clean the area, and then seal the tooth.7
Sometimes teeth grow too close together or too far apart, or stick out, or the top and bottom of the jaw don’t meet. These problems may often be corrected with braces, which is a treatment that typically requires an orthodontist. An orthodontist is a dentist who specializes in the diagnosis, prevention and treatment of dental irregularities, like teeth spacing issues (too close together or too far apart) and other concerns.8 Treating these concerns isn’t just cosmetic. Orthodontic work can have true oral health benefits such as making teeth easier to clean and reducing excess wear on your teeth.9 If you’re wondering “do I need braces?” talk to your dentist or orthodontist.
Wisdom teeth come in behind the molars at the back of the jaw. For some people, they don’t cause any problems. For others, wisdom teeth can cause pain, prevent other teeth from developing properly, and cause other complications.10 A dentist can talk with you about whether removing your wisdom teeth is right for you.11
Caring for your teeth is caring for yourself
According to the World Health Organization, oral health is part of your overall health.12 You can prevent many dental problems with good oral hygiene, which can include:13
- Brushing teeth twice a day with a fluoride toothpaste. This helps remove dental plaque, a colorless bacteria that sticks to your teeth. Brush gently using small circles, making sure to brush all sides of each tooth and angle the bristles of your toothbrush between the tooth and gum. Don’t forget to brush your tongue.
- Flossing once a day to remove plaque and food particles from between your teeth. You can use regular dental floss or tools such as a floss holder, a plastic pick from your dentist’s office, or a water flosser.
- Visiting your dentist at least once a year. Ask your dentist about the right frequency of visits for you, and about getting fluoride treatment, especially if you have a dry mouth.
- Not smoking. Smoking increases your risk of gum disease.
Dental problems can be serious, but they’re often easy to prevent. Knowing the signs and symptoms can help you get early treatment. If you have questions about your oral health, talk to your dentist.
Looking for a dental plan?
Having a dental insurance plan may help you stay on track with regular dental visits.