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House Call: Taking care of your teeth is important to your health

Taking care of your mouth and teeth is an important part of caring for your overall health. Aside from the obvious social and functional aspects of having an attractive-looking mouth, healthy teeth and gums are linked to better overall health. It’s hard to get good nutrition if you can’t chew those fruits, vegetables, and nuts that I’m always encouraging you to eat. Rotting teeth and gums also increase your body’s general state of inflammation and the risk of heart disease and infections.

I have a patient who really needs a hip replacement. He has bad teeth and because of the risk of an infected tooth seeding an artificial joint, he needs to have his teeth fixed before he can get his hip replaced. He doesn’t want to do that, so he is stuck with bad teeth and a bad hip.

As with just about anything, I find it best to make oral care a habit and the earlier you start the better. I advise parents with infants to brush their babies’ first teeth with a soft toothbrush and a tiny dab of fluoride toothpaste daily at bedtime. At age 3, you can increase from a rice grain size to a pea sized glob of toothpaste. You should start flossing as soon as any teeth touch each other. Many children can brush their own teeth by about 4 years old, but you should watch them closely and help them as needed. Don’t put your child to bed with a bottle. The pooling around the teeth all night is very bad for teeth, often leading to capped teeth in little ones.

Dentists who specialize in pediatric dentistry may be a good option for introducing your child to the dentist and helping them to feel at ease with regular dental checkups, which I recommend starting by the first birthday.

I grew up in Portland, where the water is pure snowmelt, delicious, and very low in minerals. Although drinking fluoridated water keeps teeth strong and reduces cavities, adding fluoride to the water is controversial in some communities and wasn’t done there, so my teeth are pretty soft. We are lucky in Spokane that although we don’t add fluoride, we have water with a naturally high mineral content and moderate fluoride which makes for more resilient teeth. We still recommend that children get fluoride supplements starting at 6 months.

By late childhood or adulthood, most of us have the hang of dental care, but if for some reason you or your kids don’t, now is as good a time as any to start some good habits. It will help everyone keep their teeth for a lifetime and reduce the amount of time and money spent at the dentist in the future.

To keep your teeth and gums healthy and beautiful:

Brush thoroughly twice a day, including your tongue, with fluoride toothpaste.

Floss between all teeth once a day.

Limit sugary food and drink.

Do not use tobacco.

Go to the dentist regularly.

I’ve found that using an ultrasonic toothbrush has reduced my tendency to get cavities and made my gums healthier. I recommend them highly.

No matter how vigilant you are about oral care, regular dental checkups are important for everyone. In addition to checking for cavities, gum disease, and other oral issues, many dentists now check for signs of oral cancers as part of a regular checkup. Detecting signs of any kind of cancer early is vital to successful treatment and management.

If you avoid regular checkups due to unpleasant experiences in the past, do some research and find a dentist who specializes in anxious patients. If you have financial barriers keeping you from seeking treatment, there are programs that may be able to help; visit www.spokanecares.org for a list of resources.

Having a wonderful smile is a great benefit, but keeping your teeth for a lifetime is an even better benefit.

Dr. Bob Riggs is a family medicine physician practicing at Kaiser Permanente’s Riverfront Medical Center. His column appears biweekly in The Spokesman-Review.


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