Plaque, Tartar, Gingivitis. What’s the Difference?

Brushing, Flossing, Periodontics

Dr. Allen Sun of Laurentian Dental Centre Kitchener

Dr. Allen Sun, Laurentian Dental, Kitchener

You’ve heard the terms in TV ads, seen them in print ads, and perhaps noticed them on the labels of a variety of dental products. But what do the terms plaque, tartar, gingivitis and worse, periodontal disease, really mean?

Our mouths are full of bacteria! In a healthy mouth, there is a natural balance of different bacterial species. However, when any single family of bacteria dominate an area, their levels of toxins increase to a point where they stimulate the immune system and cause an infection.

Healthy tooth concept preventing bad bacteria like plaque, tartar and gingivitis.
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Proper daily brushing and flossing remove these bacteria from the mouth, ensuring that they do not overgrow. Sadly, a common mistake that many people make is to brush, but not to floss! Not flossing allows these bacteria to build up to dangerous levels between the teeth where brushing alone can’t reach.

Plaque is a sticky, yellowish-white film that’s composed of the bacteria, small particles, proteins, and mucus. When you don’t floss on a regular daily basis, this damaging substance continuously accumulates on your teeth and gums.

With proper brushing and flossing, plaque can be removed. However, if plaque is not removed, it will calcify (or harden) over time. This “hardened” plaque is called tartar, and it can no longer be removed simply by brushing and flossing. It must be removed by a dental professional.

“The big problem with plaque and tartar is the longer they’re left on your teeth and gums, the more harmful the bacteria in the plaque and tartar become.”

The big problem with plaque and tartar is the longer they’re left on your teeth and gums, the more harmful the bacteria in the plaque and tartar become.

Many of these more nasty bacteria are called anaerobes. Large clumps of bacterial plaque at the gum line are fertile environments for these more hostile anaerobic bacteria which can release toxins that damage your gums. They also cause gum infections and inflammation, which activates the immune system. This is called gingivitis, and it’s the first stage of gum disease.

Professional dental cleanings during your regular dental checkups remove the tarter that increases the bacteria. But left unchecked, gingivitis may progress to periodontal disease which is expensive to treat, sometimes requiring surgery.

See the dentist every six months to reduce the risk of severe periodontal disease. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure!

Yours for better dental health,

This article has been updated from its original posting in June of 2013.

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