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Dental cleanings (prophylaxis)

Tooth decay (dental caries) is caused by streptococcus mutans bacteria.

Figure 1: A scanning electron micrograph of a colony of Streptococcus mutans bacteria, such as those found in the fuzzy plaque on teeth. These are the bacteria responsible for the vast majority of tooth decay. Dental prophylaxis can help eliminate harmful bacteria in the mouth. (Image from http://www.zahnarzt-stuttgart.com, used with permission).

A dental cleaning involves cleaning mineralized accumulations of bacteria-rich tartar, and superficial stains from the teeth of patient who do not have active periodontal disease (gum disease).

If bacterial plaques (Figure 1) are allowed to remain in the mouth, the immune system produces an inflammatory reaction which is harmful to tissue. The bacteria themselves release acids and enzymes which are also destructive to tissue—including the hard tissues of teeth and bone.

Even a person who is meticulous about cleaning the teeth and gums will typically develop calculus deposits at some locations in the mouth, most notably around the salivary glands (cheek side of upper molars, and behind the lower front teeth). Those who have dental restorations (dental fillings, dental crowns (caps), etc.) have the additional challenge of preventing accumulations of plaque and calculus around the edges (margins) of those restorations, especially if they are poorly contoured.

Dental caries (cavities/tooth decay) and periodontal disease (gum disease) are bacterial illnesses. Bacteria that inhabit the mouth can enter the body through oral circulation and lead to systemic illnesses. Preventing these processes from occurring means practicing excellent oral hygiene such as brushing and flossing; and having your mouth and teeth examined and cleaned regularly, according to a schedule recommended by your dentist.

Dental cleanings are typically recommended twice a year for the “average” healthy adult patient. There is variability in this interval that is specific to the individual. For adult patients who maintain meticulous oral hygiene, proper nutrition, and have never experienced dental caries (cavities/tooth decay) or gum problems, an annual dental cleaning interval may be appropriate. Only a dentist can determine the proper frequency for examinations and dental cleanings.

Some patients, such as those with mental or physical challenges that impair effective oral hygiene may require dental cleanings as often as every six to eight weeks in certain circumstances. The interval should be based on the individual’s ability to keep their mouth clean, the rate at which bacteria colonize the individual’s teeth and gums, the individual’s immune response, and the individual’s general health, among other factors.

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Author: Thomas J. Greany, D.D.S. / Editor: Ken Lambrecht

This page was last updated on May 15, 2023.