Dental Health

By Frederick Jerant

We’re bombarded with information about cancer prevention, weight loss, hair loss, hair recovery…even something called “digestive health” (whatever that means).

But 32 parts of our bodies often get short shrift. Yes, I’m talking about our teeth.

“Common sense often goes out the window when we’re dealing with our teeth,” says Dr. James P. Newman, DMD and owner/president of Easton Family Dental. “If something’s growing on a part of your body—like a tumor—you’ll see a doctor right away. But if something’s going on with our teeth? We often ignore it.”

It’s easy for things to go wrong, Newman says, because “the mouth is a bad environment. It’s wet, full of sugar and acid, and has a temperature of 98.6 degrees.” He adds that, even though our teeth are very hard, chewing subjects them to great stress.

And if you combine stress with a hostile environment…well, you can see where that can lead.

To tooth decay, for one thing. But poor dental health can precede some less-obvious complications. For example, periodontal disease, caused by bacteria that grow on tooth surfaces is the leading cause of tooth loss, says Dr. Timothy C. Burke, DMD, a private-practice dentist in Allentown. “Gingivitis is a mild form of periodontal disease,” he says, “but in more extreme cases, bone actually breaks down,” which leads to tooth loss.

Those bacteria can then travel throughout the body and attack anything that’s already been compromised—artificial valves, a transplanted organ, even the bones surrounding a prosthetic hip.

Lax dental hygiene also contributes to low birth weights, and increased risks of stroke, heart attack and atherosclerosis.

Fortunately, one of the best ways to ensure good dental health is a simple visit your dentist every six months.

“Your teeth undergo a lot of abuse, and regular exams can catch developing problems before they get out of hand,” says Dr. Newman. And that can mean the difference between a simple filling and a root canal or extraction. “Remember,” he adds, “when it hurts, it’s probably too late.”

Between visits, brushing several times a day is a great help. But “flossing is the number-one thing to do every day,” says Dr. Newman. Even the most thorough brushing cleans only the surfaces the brush can reach. Bristles can’t get between your teeth. Floss can.

Dr. Newman suggests that if you’re going to floss only once a day, do it at bedtime. Saliva helps to dilute and wash away acid and bacteria, he says, but we produce less of it when we’re asleep. “If you still have food particles in your mouth, bacteria will go crazy,” he says. “The concentration of acid also gets stronger, and can speed up the rate of decay.”

We all know we should avoid sugary foods and drinks (including energy drinks and juices). But did you know that sodas tend to make your mouth temporarily more acidic?

“Soda makers inject their products with carbon dioxide gas to make them fizzy,” says Dr. Burke. “But when CO2 combines with water, it forms carbonic acid [H2CO3].”

Having a slug of your favorite bubbly beverage with a meal isn’t necessarily a bad thing, especially if you brush or rinse afterward. “The problem comes from long or repeated exposure to the sugar and acid,” he says—for example, if you sit at your desk and nurse a sugary drink, each sip is a new episode of contaminating your teeth.

Regular professional care is essential to maintaining good dental health, but what happens if you simply can’t afford those visits? For many children of low-income families, it means a mouthful of problems.

Bonnie Coyle, MD, Director of Community Health for St. Luke’s Hospital and Health Network, Bethlehem, says that she’s done many physicals in local schools and has seen children with teeth that have rotted to the gum line. She adds, however, that since 2001, St. Luke’s has operated a dental van program to bring tooth care to schools in Lehigh and Northampton counties.

“They’re set up to perform evaluations, cleaning, fluoride application, extractions of primary teeth and other services,” she says.

The program maintains records for the children in the program, so the dentists and technicians know immediately which child needs what type of care. And the van visits “eliminate transportation problems,” Dr. Coyle says. “It’s also very productive. If a particular child isn’t available, the next one in line goes to the van.”

The dental care program, which receives strong financial support from the Lehigh Valley Coalition for Kids, currently operates two dental vans. It hopes to replace the older one with a brand-new unit within the next year.

Frederick Jerant is an experienced health writer who has been around long enough to barely remember Bucky Beaver and Ipana toothpaste. He’s also written medical-based news releases, web and brochure copy.

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