What causes bad breath? – and 11 other common dental questions answered | Healthy smiles











Illustration: Kiki Ljung/Guardian

From the first signs of tooth decay to at-home whitening advice, we asked TePe’s dental hygiene expert Elaine Tilling to answer our most pressing dental dos and don’ts. And by gum, she delivered. Here’s everything you ever wanted to know about oral hygiene, but were too scared of the dentist to ask …

Q. What’s the best thing I can do for my teeth?
A. Simple: brush your teeth regularly using a fluoride toothpaste, clean between your teeth daily with floss or an interdental brush to clean those tiny spaces, and eat a balanced diet. That doesn’t mean you have to be healthier than thou – chocolate and sweets are only really bad if you graze between meals, but eating them with your meal is OK. Drinks-wise, the safest beverage is water.

Q. Is coffee really that bad for my teeth?
A. No. Staining is caused by deposits of hardened plaque, known as calculus, becoming stained, rather than the tooth itself. Marks left by red wine or coffee can be easily removed during a scale and polish. If you’re concerned, book a hygienist appointment.

Q. What causes bad breath?
A. Around 85% of bad breath comes from the head and neck, rather than the gut. It’s often caused by plaque, formed when saliva mixes with food and bacteria. Fortunately, plaque can be removed by thorough brushing and interdental brushes. Gum disease, infected sinuses and bacteria on the tongue can cause bad breath, too.

Q. How can I stop grinding my teeth?
A. Bruxism, AKA tooth grinding, tends to be subconscious and done in our sleep. So you can’t necessarily train yourself to stop doing it. Ask your dentist to assess the damage to your teeth and, if necessary, offer treatment or fit you with a mouth guard that will help prevent you grinding your enamel away.

Q. Is it possible to repair enamel?
A. Yes. Enamel is a calcified substance and tooth decay causes calcium to leach out because of the presence of acid. In the early stages, calcium in our saliva and fluoride in toothpaste can remineralise it and the body repairs itself. Chewing sugar-free gum stimulates saliva, and can help the remineralisation, too.

Q. Is at-home whitening safe?
A. Effective teeth whitening contains 0.2% hydrogen peroxide, which only licenced dental professionals can use. Over-the-counter whitening kits won’t be as effective, and buying online can be dangerous.

Q. I’ve never cleaned between my teeth before. Is it too late?
A. Never! Gum disease is preventable. And it’s all about simple, regular plaque removal. We recommend using interdental brushes or floss once a day to clean between your teeth, especially if you have veneers, implants, fillings or crowns, because there’s more to clean.

Q. Is interdental brushing the same as flossing?
A. Both tools do a similar job, but interdental brushes make it easier to clean those tricky spaces between our teeth – just push it through the gap and turn like a key. Generally, flossing works for patients with relatively healthy gum tissue and small spaces between the teeth. Interdental brushes are best if you have gum recession or bigger spaces.

Q. Why do I get a dry mouth?
A. Some medications have the side effect of reducing saliva flow, which may be worth talking to your GP about. Chemotherapy and radiotherapy can also damage saliva glands and cause a dry mouth.

Q. What are the signs of tooth decay?
A. Sensitivity to sweet, hot or cold foods and drinks, or tooth pain. When patients have early lesions – white spots on the teeth – this early decay is reversible. But when lesions go into the dentine, the hard bony tissue beneath the enamel, and starts to mushroom, it causes permanent damage.

Q. I wear a fixed brace. How can I clean it?
A. There’s no such thing as the perfect toothbrush – one size doesn’t fit all and there are always areas plaque and debris stick to – so it’s important to use interdental brushes, too. The yellow and green TePe interdental brushes are designed to fit around brackets and under wires. Use them after meals to make sure both your brace and your teeth are seriously clean.

Q. Is it really worth getting an appointment with the hygienist?
A. Yes. We all have areas we miss when brushing – I can look into your mouth and know if you’re left-handed or right-handed, for example. A hygienist can help you reduce the cost of future dentistry and prevent dental disease. Some patients need to be seen every three months, but people with a lower level of risk can go every two years.

For more information, visit tepe.com/uk/healthy-smiles/

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