Plaque is a sticky, colorless substance that constantly forms on our teeth. It is a biofilm that consists of bacteria, food debris, as well as saliva. While plaque itself is not harmful, it can lead to tooth decay as gum disease if not removed properly. In this article, we will discuss what plaque is, how it forms, its impact on oral health, and ways to prevent it from accumulating.
What is plaque?
Plaque is a soft, sticky film that forms on the teeth. It is composed of bacteria, food particles, as well as saliva. The bacteria in plaque feed on sugars and starches in our diet, producing acids as waste products. Over time, these acids dissolve tooth enamel, leading to cavities. Plaque also irritates and inflames the gums, resulting in gingivitis. If left untreated, gingivitis can advance to periodontitis, a serious gum infection that destroys the soft tissue as well as bone supporting the teeth. Plaque is constantly forming on our teeth within 20 minutes of eating. While we cannot avoid it completely, proper oral hygiene is key to removing plaque as well as preventing oral health issues.
How does plaque form?
Plaque begins forming as a thin, transparent film almost immediately after eating or drinking anything containing sugar or starch. Within a few hours, it hardens and turns white. Here are the basic steps of how plaque forms:
- Bacteria in our mouth metabolize sugars and starches in our diet, producing acids.
- These acids dissolve minerals from tooth enamel, leaving it vulnerable to decay.
- Food particles and bacteria stick to the teeth and gums.
- More bacteria multiply and metabolites they produce cause the plaque to harden within a few hours.
- Plaque is not removed through brushing and flossing, it continues accumulating on the teeth.
Impact of plaque on oral health
The buildup of plaque has significant negative consequences for oral health if not removed properly. Some of the main impacts include:
- Tooth decay: The acids in plaque dissolve tooth enamel over time, leading to cavities. Repeated attacks can destroy large portions of teeth.
- Gum disease: Plaque irritates and inflames gums, resulting in gingivitis. Untreated gingivitis can advance to periodontitis with bone and tissue loss.
- Bad breath: The bacteria in plaque breaking down food debris releases odorous compounds and volatile sulfur compounds, resulting in halitosis.
- Tooth stains: Certain compounds in plaque can discolor the enamel, leading to unattractive tooth stains over time.
- Systemic diseases: Recent research links periodontitis to increased risk of other health issues like cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and preterm births.
Preventing plaque buildup
Adopting good oral hygiene habits is essential to remove plaque and prevent its accumulation. Some effective ways to do this include:
- Brushing twice daily with a soft-bristled toothbrush and fluoride toothpaste. Brush all tooth surfaces, including chewing surfaces and along the gumline.
- Flossing once daily. Flossing removes plaque from between teeth and under the gumline that brushing cannot reach.
- Using an antiseptic mouthwash. Certain mouthwashes have antibacterial properties that can further reduce plaque levels.
- Professional cleanings. Regular dental cleanings by a hygienist using special instruments help remove built-up plaque below the gumline.
- Restricting snacks. Frequent snacking provides more opportunities for plaque to form. Limiting snacks can help reduce plaque levels.
Plaque is a sticky biofilm that forms constantly on our teeth. While it is not harmful in itself, plaque leads to tooth decay and gum disease and bad breath over time if not removed properly. Adopting good oral hygiene habits like brushing, flossing, and professional cleanings regularly is key to disrupt plaque’s formation as well as prevent its negative impacts on oral and overall health. Maintaining good plaque control should be part of everyone’s daily routine.