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What Is Plaque and How Can It Hurt My Teeth?

June 29, 2021
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Posted By: Bryant Anderson, DMD
Teeth cleaning in Winter Park, FL

What Is Plaque and How Can It Hurt My Teeth?

Dental plaque refers to that layer of fuzzy, sticky gunk that builds up on your teeth. Not only is it unsightly, but it can also cause serious damage to your gums and even hurt your teeth.

What Is Plaque?

Plaque is a biofilm. That means it is a complex colony of several different types of bacteria living together. The colony comes together to secrete a gel-like film to protect themselves as well as pass nutrients from one layer to the next. 

The longer you leave this film undisturbed, the more layers can accumulate. Each layer is a perfect ecosystem for a different type of bacteria, providing for each microbe’s specific needs. For example, microbes living in the top layers probably need some amount of oxygen to survive. But those way down at the bottom of the matrix, or in deep areas under the gums, are likely anaerobic, meaning they die if there is too much oxygen.

Does All Plaque Hurt My Teeth?

Those bacteria living in the superficial top layers, the ones that are okay with oxygen, are usually the first ones to set up shop in your mouth. Many types may even show up mere hours after you brush and floss. The good news is, most of those are relatively harmless. Some even help us digest our food and may help protect us against worse critters!

However, if you let those microbes start to build up, anaerobic bacteria may move in as well. These are usually far more damaging than the early settlers. They tend to produce a lot of acid as a byproduct of their digestion. In plain English, that means they eat particles of your food, same as you do, and after they digest it, they create waste. And that waste can be really harmful.

How Does Plaque Damage My Teeth and Gums?

Acid is the primary reason people develop dental decay. Your teeth are made of a crystalline structure of a bunch of different minerals, something called hydroxyapatite. As this mineral is exposed to acid, some of the bonds between molecules start to break. Too many broken bonds in one place and the enamel goes soft. That’s a cavity.

However, cavities aren’t the only way oral plaque bacteria can hurt your oral health. These bacteria can also attack your gums and cause infections. Even if they don’t attack your gums directly, their very presence can trigger an immune response. In many cases, gingivitis and periodontal disease is actually caused by your own immune cells trying to attack your plaque, but damaging your own tissue instead.

What Can I Do About Plaque?

I’m sure you can guess our answer here: great flossing and brushing, and regular dental health appointments! By keeping up with your cleanings and maintaining great home care, you can help to limit the amount of bacteria growing in your mouth, as well as prevent many of the most damaging types from taking up residence. 

Be sure to check back for upcoming posts about how to make sure your home care routine is effective and efficient!

 
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