The Lowdown on Dental Plaque

Dental plaque is the colorless, filmy buildup of invisible germs found around and on our teeth. If it sounds like a horror story, it actually can be! Plaque can cause problems far beyond our mouths.

Technically, Streptococcus mutans (what we commonly know as strep, as in a strep throat) and bacteria are the microorganisms that find a welcome, wet place to grow on our teeth. These microorganisms cause havoc without proper oral hygiene. The “extracellular matrix” is also a part of plaque, and it contains proteins, long chain polysaccharides, and lipids.

Without brushing, flossing, or regular dental visits, these germs cause cavities and even worse tooth damage. Namely, the failure to consistently remove dental plaque can result in the production of strong acids that break down the vital minerals on the surfaces of teeth, thus compromising them. Saliva that normally neutralizes the acids is prevented from doing so. The result? Irritation of the gums, gingivitis (gum inflammation), periodontal disease (including bleeding and redness), or even the loss of teeth- and of course, dental plaque.

Dental plaque can be invisible, so how is it detected? Just perform your usual dental care maintenance and you may see the remnants of dental plaque. Second, if you want to actually see the extent of plaque on your teeth, you can pick up red “disclosing tablets” at many drug stores and supermarkets. The old-fashioned way is to dip a cotton swab in green food coloring and spread it over your teeth. Any colored stains you see reveal the dental plaque. It’s a good wake-up call if you’ve been slack in taking charge of your oral hygiene. Dentists can also identify and remove excessive plaque that is not removed from tooth brushing at general dental visits.

As bad as dental plaque is for your gums and teeth, it doesn’t stop there. Doctors have discovered a link between periodontal disease and heart disease. A study published in Circulation: Journal of the American Heart Association examined 657 people without known heart disease issues. The study’s authors found that people with higher blood levels of certain disease-causing bacteria originating in the mouth were more likely to have atherosclerosis in carotid arteries, which can lead to strokes. It’s important to emphasize, however, the kind of dental plaque in heart arteries has no relationship to the sticky plaque on your teeth. That said, both cardiologists and dentists often require patients with preexisting heart conditions to take a course of antibiotics prior to having any dental work done as a precaution.

It has been said that there is a secret weapon for good health: a toothbrush. Good oral hygiene is mandatory for preventing dental plaque from making a home in your mouth. Brush after meals. Floss regularly. Don’t let dental plaque plague your health.

If you are concerned about dental plaque and it’s time for your dental check up, contact Dr. Mark Sweeney, an Austin Texas dentist, at 512.380.1300.