Taking care of your oral hygiene involves more than cleaning your teeth. Photo: Diana Polekhina

Oral health: Watch your biofilm

By Geraldine Fitzgerald

This is the first article in a new four week series on oral health, which will cover a range of issues from biofilm to how to replace missing teeth.

You won’t find biofilm on Netflix. Biofilm is a collection of living organisms which cling together to survive. All it needs to proliferate madly is a surface exposed to both bacteria and water.

It’s the gunk on the inside of pipes; it’s the slippery goo on wet rocks – and it’s all over your teeth.

Free-swimming bacterial cells land on the surface of your teeth, arrange themselves in clusters, and attach. The cells secrete a gooey matrix, signalling to one another to multiply and form a colony. It’s pretty disgusting, and it’s inside your mouth.

Plaque forms when the bacteria of the biofilm mix with sugary or starchy foods, and release acids to break down the carbohydrates in food and drinks.

That sticky coating on your teeth needs to be brushed away several times a day, or it will lead to cavities and gum disease, from mild gingivitis to severe periodontitis.

A certain level of biofilm is normal in the human body – it coats our intestines, too – but when the balance is upset by the acids from eating and drinking, it leads to demineralisation of the enamel of your teeth and gum disease. Maintaining a healthy Ph balance in your mouth is the key, to rid it of fermenting sugars and food particles before they have the chance to become plaque. Brush your teeth morning and evening, and if you can brush a half hour or so after eating, do.

Flossing is unbelievably important, as all the yucky stuff collects in the crevices between the teeth.Plaque collects around the gumline and if left uncontrolled, will harden into tartar, which needs to be removed by a professional.

Our mouth gets dryer as we age and many medications list dry mouth as a side effect. Reduced saliva flow makes the whole situation worse, so an antibacterial mouthwash may be a good idea for you.

Ask your dentist to recommend a mouthwash, as the stronger ones can stain teeth and are meant for short-term use only. Do not be fooled by the advertisements - read the fine print before you buy.

If you’re not repulsed enough now that you know what that furry mess on your teeth is, you should be aware that there is a strong link between oral bacteria and heart disease. Bacteria can travel through damaged, vulnerable gum tissues into the bloodstream, all over the body and into the heart valves.

That bacteria can trigger inflammation, causing a narrowing of arteries and potentially causing a heart attack or stroke. In fact, gum disease will increase your risk of heart disease by as much as 20%.

Reduce your risk by keeping your mouth and gums clean; get regular dental check-ups and a professional cleaning every six months.

And don’t share toothbrushes. Everybody’s brush is covered with their own bacteria having a party all over the surface of the bristles. Yuck.