Everything you’ve ever wanted to know about your smile and how to take care of it.

How long should I brush my teeth?

It might be a good idea to brush with the radio on, since dentists generally recommend brushing three to four minutes, the average length of a song. Using an egg timer is another way to measure your brushing time. Patients generally think they're brushing longer, but most spend less than a minute brushing.

To make sure you're doing a thorough job and not missing any spots, patients are advised to brush the full three to four minutes twice a day, instead of brushing quickly five or more times through the day.

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What is the best way to brush your teeth?

There are a number of effective brushing techniques. Patients are advised to check with their dentist or hygienist to determine which technique is best for them, since tooth position and gum condition vary. One effective, easy-to-remember technique involves using a circular or elliptical motion to brush a couple of teeth at a time, gradually covering the entire mouth.

Place a toothbrush beside your teeth at a 45-degree angle and gently brush teeth in an elliptical motion. Brush the outside of the teeth, inside the teeth, your tongue, the chewing surfaces and between teeth. Using a back-and-forth motion causes the gum surface to recede, can expose the root surface or make the root surface tender. You also risk wearing down the gum line.

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Should I brush at work?

Definitely, but most Americans don't brush during the workday. Yet a survey by Oral-B Laboratories and the Academy of General Dentistry (AGD) shows if you keep a toothbrush at work, the chances you will brush during the day increase by 65 percent.

Getting the debris off teeth right away stops sugary snacks from turning to damaging acids and catches starchy foods like potato chips before they turn to cavity-causing sugar. If you brush with fluoride toothpaste in the morning and before going to bed, you don't even need to use toothpaste at work. You can just brush and rinse before heading back to your desk. If you don't have a toothbrush, rinsing your mouth with water for 30 seconds after lunch also helps.

Tips to improve your office brushing habits:

  • Post a sticky note on your desk or computer as a reminder to brush teeth after lunch.
  • Brush teeth right after lunch, before you become absorbed in work.
  • Store your toothbrush and toothpaste at work in a convenient and handy place.
  • Make brushing your teeth part of your freshening-up routine at work.
  • When brushing at the office or away from home, it's important to make an extra effort to keep your toothbrush germ-free.

Tips on how to properly store and care for your toothbrush at work:

  • Always store your toothbrush in a travel container.
  • Dry your toothbrush after use and before returning to its container.
  • Change the toothbrush you take to work more often than your toothbrush at home to avoid bacteria build-up.

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Should I use over-the-counter dental instruments?

As more oral health product manufacturers introduce dental instruments to the consumer market, more patients are seeking treatment as a result of misuse of these devices, reports the Academy of General Dentistry (AGD).

AGD spokesperson Heidi Hausauer, DDS, says she frequently sees devices that resemble a scaler – an instrument used by dentists and dental hygienists for removing tartar and other deposits from the tooth surface – advertised in magazines and sold in drug stores.

"I've had people come into the office who have used these over-the-counter dental instruments and chipped their front tooth with them," she says. "I've seen patients gauge roots and chip the enamel off lower incisors."

Misuse of the devices also can lead to periodontal (gum) abscesses when tartar is pushed under the gumline.

While dentists and hygienists are trained in the proper use of dental instruments and removing tartar, they warn that patients attempting to do it themselves at home may do more harm than good. Rather than attempt to advise patients on proper use of these devices, many tell their patients it is safest to avoid using them at all.

"I would rather see the dentist or hygienist remove tartar," says Dr. Hausauer. "Regular professional cleaning and dental visits are much healthier than buying something over the counter and picking at your teeth."

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Why should I floss?

Floss removes plaque and debris that adhere to teeth and gums in between teeth, polishes tooth surfaces and controls bad breath. By flossing your teeth daily, you increase the chances of keeping your teeth a lifetime and decrease your chance of having periodontal (gum) disease and tooth decay. Flossing is the single most important weapon against plaque, perhaps more important than the toothbrush. Many people just don't spend enough time flossing and many have never been taught to floss properly. When you visit your dentist or hygienist, ask to be shown.

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Which type of floss should I use?

Dental floss comes in many forms: waxed and unwaxed, flavored and unflavored, wide and regular. Wide floss, or dental tape, may be helpful for people with a lot of bridge work. Tapes are usually recommended when the spaces between teeth are wide. They all clean and remove plaque about the same. Waxed floss might be easier to slide between tight teeth or tight restorations. However, the unwaxed floss makes a squeaking sound to let you know your teeth are clean. Bonded unwaxed floss does not fray as easily as regular unwaxed floss but does tear more than waxed floss.

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How often should I floss?

At least once a day. To give your teeth a good flossing, spend at least two or three minutes.

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What can I do about sensitive teeth?

Tooth sensitivity can be reduced by using a desensitizing toothpaste; having your dentist apply sealants and other desensitizing and filling materials, including fluoride; and decreasing the intake of acid-containing foods. Using tartar-control toothpaste will sometimes cause teeth to be sensitive as well as drinking soft drinks throughout the day, so these habits should be avoided.

Avoid using hard-bristled toothbrushes and brushing your teeth too hard, which can wear down the tooth's surface and expose sensitive spots. The way to find out if you're brushing your teeth too hard is to take a good look at your toothbrush. If the bristles are pointing in multiple directions, you're brushing too hard.

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Is there any danger in using toothpicks?

In a pinch, toothpicks are effective at removing food between teeth, but for daily cleaning of plaque between teeth, floss is recommended. When you use a toothpick, don't press too hard, as you can break off the end and lodge it in your gums.

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Are there any alternatives to dentures?

Dental implants are a possible alternative to dentures. Implants are artificial tooth roots that are surgically anchored into your jaw to hold a replacement tooth or bridge in place. Implants and bridges may resemble the "feel" of real teeth, but they may be more expensive than dentures. Not all patients are good candidates for implants, so be sure to talk to your dentist about which treatment option is best for you.

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What is a dental amalgam?

When your dentist determines that you have a cavity in a tooth, he or she will tell you that you need a filling. But what exactly will your dentist use to fill the hole after the decay has been removed? Dental amalgam is the most widely used and researched material for fillings. It has been used to restore the teeth of more than 100 million Americans over the past 150 years.

Dental amalgam is a mix of metal (also known as an alloy) that is made by combining mercury, silver, tin, copper, and sometimes other metallic elements.

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Is mercury in dental amalgam safe?

Although dental amalgam continues to be a safe, commonly used restorative material, there have been some concerns because it contains mercury. However, because the mercury in amalgam is combined with other metals, it is safe for use in filling teeth. Major U.S. and international scientific and health organizations, including the National Institutes of Health, the U.S. Public Health Service, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Food and Drug Administration, and the World Health Organization, are satisfied that dental amalgam is a safe, reliable, and effective restorative material.

If you are concerned about amalgam, talk to your dentist. Dentists can use other materials to fill a tooth, such as composite resin, porcelain, and gold. Your dentist will advise you about the most practical, safest option for your situation.

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What is a root canal?

Underneath your tooth's outer enamel and within the dentin is an area of soft tissue called the pulp tissue. While a tooth's pulp tissue does contain nerve fibers, it is also composed of arteries, veins, lymph vessels, and connective tissue. Each tooth's nerve enters the tooth at the very tip of its roots. From there, the nerve runs through the center of the root in small "root canals," which join up with the tooth's pulp chamber. Root canals are very small, thin divisions that branch off from the top pulp chamber down to the tip of the root. A tooth has at least one but no more than four root canals.

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Why do I need a root canal?

Root canal therapy is necessary because the tooth will not heal by itself. Without treatment, the infection will spread, bone around the tooth will begin to degenerate and the tooth may fall out. Pain usually worsens until one is forced to seek emergency dental attention. The only alternative is usually extraction of the tooth, which can cause surrounding teeth to shift crookedly, resulting in a bad bite. Though an extraction is cheaper, the space left behind will require an implant or a bridge, which can be more expensive than root canal therapy. If you have the choice, it's always best to keep your original teeth.

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How long do crowns last?

Crowns should last approximately five to eight years. However, with good oral hygiene and supervision, most crowns will last for a much longer period of time. Some damaging habits like grinding your teeth, chewing ice or fingernail biting may cause this period of time to decrease significantly.

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What is the difference between a cap and a crown?

There is no difference between a cap and a crown.

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Is bleaching safe for you?

The active ingredient in most of whitening agents is carbamide peroxide; when water comes into contact with this white crystal, the release of hydrogen peroxide lightens the teeth.

Several studies have proven bleaching to be safe and effective. The American Dental Association has granted its seal of approval to some tooth bleaching products. Some patients may experience slight gum irritation or tooth sensitivity, which will resolve when the treatment ends.

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How long does bleaching last?

Lightness should last from one to five years, depending on your personal habits such as smoking and drinking coffee and tea. At this point you may choose to get a touch-up. The retreatment time is much shorter than the original treatment time.

Printed with permission from the Academy of General Dentistry's site, www.knowyourteeth.com. Information contained is for information and educational purposes only, and should be used in consultation with a dentist, especially in emergency situations.