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plaque and calculus on teeth

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Alternative Names
bacterial plaque, dental calculus, tartar

The best way to understand the mechanism of plaque and calculus retention on teeth is to think of plaque as sticky as cement. But also think of this paste as loaded with bacteria. This soft material gets everywhere in the mouth. It forms readily on the surfaces of the teeth, between the teeth, in the crevices between the gum tissue and the tooth surface, in the grooves and fissures on the biting surfaces of the teeth.

The longer this material is allowed to set, the more difficult it is to remove. In the early stages it can be brushed and flossed off of the teeth. Once it has set (now it is called calculus or tartar) it must be scraped off the teeth by a dentist or dental hygienist.

The bacteria in this plaque material cause the major problems. This bacterial mass is held tightly to the tooth surface and quickly turns certain foods, such as sugars and starches, into decay producing acid. In this way tooth structure is dissolved causing cavities (dental decay or dental caries).

This bacterial mass also produces irritating substances, which cause gum diseases. Gingivitis is a superficial and reversable inflammation of the gums. Periodontitis occurs when the inflammation starts to involve the supporting ligament and jaw bone. Gum disease is the most significant reason that teeth are lost in adults.

What is the information for this topic?

Following these recommendations will help prevent cavities and gum diseases:
  • Use a soft toothbrush with fluoride toothpaste at least once a day. Ask your dentist to help teach you and your child how to brush effectively.
  • Floss at least once a day. Be careful not to injure the gums when flossing.
  • Brush the top surface of the tongue lightly to reduce the white or grey coating which naturally occurs there. This will help eliminate some of the bacteria and helps prevent unpleasant breath.
  • Obtain specific oral care instructions from your dentist. There are many sources of free material to help you learn the best way to brush and floss. Don't be afraid to ask questions.
Author: Marvin Goldfogel, DDS
Reviewer: HealthAnswers Australia Medical Review Panel
Editor: Dr David Taylor, Chief Medical Officer HealthAnswers Australia
Last Updated: 1/10/2001
Potential conflict of interest information for reviewers available on request

This website and article is not a substitute for independent professional advice. Nothing contained in this website is intended to be used as medical advice and it is not intended to be used to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease, nor should it be used for therapeutic purposes or as a substitute for your own health professional's advice.  All Health and any associated parties do not accept any liability for any injury, loss or damage incurred by use of or reliance on the information.


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