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Caring for your teeth

You may think that teeth are indestructible, but tooth decay is a common health problem in Australia. Tooth decay can happen at any age, but it is preventable and can be reversed if spotted early. So it is important that healthy oral hygiene habits become a part of your daily routine for life.

The truth about plaque 

Tooth decay and gum disease are caused by a build-up of plaque, which is a sticky film that contains bacteria and is found on teeth.

Tooth decay

When you eat, food can get trapped between and inside the grooves of your teeth. Tooth decay occurs when plaque bacteria breakdown the sugar and starch contained in the trapped foods, producing acids. These acids can erode the protective enamel layer of your teeth, causing holes to form. These acids can erode the protective enamel layer on the surface of your teeth, causing holes to form.

Sweets and sugary foods are not the only baddies when it comes to tooth decay. Plaque bacteria can break down any foods that contain sugar or starch, including fresh and dried fruit, biscuits and crackers, potato chips, snack bars, and peanut butter. Acidic foods (e.g. fruit juices, cordials and fizzy drinks) can also damage teeth as they can etch away the enamel.

Gum disease

Gum disease can develop when plaque builds up on the gum line at the bottom of your teeth. Your gums can become inflamed (gingivitis), which can cause the gum line to recede. Plaque can also penetrate into the gum, affecting your jaw bone (periodontitis). This may result in an infection (abscess) and possibly even tooth loss.

The risk of getting gum disease increases with age, so good life-long dental hygiene habits are very important.

More information on gum disease and how to prevent or manage it

Who is at risk of oral health problems?  

You may be at increased risk of oral health problems if you:

  • eat a diet high in sugary and acidic foods
  • don’t practise good oral hygiene
  • smoke
  • have diabetes
  • have had a dental accident (e.g. a badly damaged or knocked out tooth)
  • have a medical condition, or are taking a medicine, that causes a dry mouth
  • drink excessive alcohol
  • are an older person.

Have you had rheumatic fever?

It is important to tell your dentist if you have had rheumatic fever or rheumatic heart disease before you have any dental treatment. This is because if you have a treatment that makes your gums bleed (e.g. a tooth removed), bacteria from your mouth can travel to your heart, causing inflammation of your heart (endocarditis). Your dentist may give you antibiotics before you have your treatment to prevent infection.

Tips on caring for your teeth 

A few simple yet effective measures can help protect your teeth and gums.

Tips for brushing your teeth twice a day using a fluoride toothpaste

  • Brush your teeth for 2–3 minutes, twice a day, every day, using a fluoride-containing toothpaste.
  • Clean every surface of your teeth – inner, outer and chewing surfaces – in a systematic way. Brush your tongue for fresher breath.
  • Use an electric toothbrush or a soft-bristled toothbrush with a small head so it is easy to reach all areas of your mouth.
  • Change your toothbrush as soon as it begins to show wear.
  • Wait at least 1 hour after a meal before brushing your teeth. This is because the acid in food and drink can temporarily soften your tooth enamel; brushing your teeth straight after eating may harm the enamel.

Ask your dentist about the best way to clean your teeth or find out more from the Australian Dental Association.

Floss between your teeth every day

Flossing helps remove food from between your teeth in the hard-to-get-at gaps that a toothbrush can’t reach. There are also other oral hygiene devices that can be used instead of, or as well as, floss. If you find using floss difficult, speak to your dentist about the best floss-alternative for your teeth.

Visit your dentist regularly

Everyone’s needs are different, so have a chat to your dentist about how often you need to have your teeth checked by them based on the condition of your mouth, teeth and gums. Regular dental check-ups can identify any dental problems early and treat them if necessary.

You should also visit your dentist if you have:

  • a toothache, gum or jaw pain as this may indicate dental decay or an infection that may need treatment
  • red, swollen or bleeding gums as this may indicate gum disease or an infection.
  • a dental accident such as a loosened or badly damaged tooth or one that has got knocked out.

Seek dental advice immediately, ideally within 30 minutes, if you or your child has an accident involving teeth (e.g. a loosened, badly damaged or knocked out tooth). It may be possible to save the tooth within this time.

If a permanent tooth is knocked out, place it in milk (not water), or wrap it tightly in plastic wrap till you can get help. If the tooth is clean, you could try and put it back inside your mouth – either back correctly into its socket or keep it inside your mouth next to your cheek.

Chew sugar-free gum after meals

Chewing gum stimulates your mouth to produce more saliva. Saliva washes food away, reduces the amount of decay-causing bacteria, and helps to neutralise the acids these bacteria produce.

Some illnesses, old age and certain medications can reduce the amount of saliva in your mouth causing dry mouth, which can contribute to tooth decay. It’s important to use only sugar-free gum, as ordinary chewing gum contains sugar and therefore may damage your teeth.

Healthy eating for healthy teeth 

Here are some additional tips for healthier eating to help keep your teeth and gums in good shape.

Limit consumption of sugary and acidic foods

Food or drink containing sugar or acid increases the risk of tooth decay. Limit how often you eat and drink these foods throughout the day. It is just as important to limit the amount of sugary foods you eat to prevent tooth decay as it is for your overall health.

  • If you need to snack, choose ‘tooth friendly’ foods such as cheese, nuts, apples, carrots and celery.
  • Drink water (preferably tap water) or milk-based drinks, and avoid sweetened soft drinks.

Drink tap water

In most places across Australia, tap water contains fluoride. Fluoride helps protect teeth by slowing down the enamel breakdown caused by acids, as well as helping to rebuild tooth enamel. Remember, while bottled water also helps quench your thirst, keep in mind it does not contain teeth-protecting fluoride.

Limit alcohol consumption

Alcohol can contribute to tooth decay, but it is also a risk factor for oral cancers.

Quit smoking  

If you smoke, you are more likely to experience oral problems including:

  • oral cancer (five times more likely compared with a non-smoker)
  • poor healing after tooth removal, and mouth or gum surgery
  • infections
  • gum disease.

People who stop smoking can eventually reduce their risk of gum disease, oral cancer and other oral problems to that of a non-smoker. For help to quit smoking, talk to your doctor or pharmacist, or call Quitline (13 78 48).

Further information  

Australian Dental Association


American Academy of Periodontology. Gum diseases and other diseases. [online] [Accessed 18 July 2014] Available from:

American Association of Endodontists. Knocked out teeth. [online] [Accessed 18 July 2014] Available from:

Australian Dental Association. FAQ. [online] [Accessed 18 July 2014]. Available from:

Better Health Channel. Smoking and oral health. [online] [Accessed on 10 August 2014] Available from:

British Dental Association. Diet. [online] [Accessed 18 July 2014] Available from:

British Dental Association. Fluoride. [online] [Accessed 18 July 2014] Available from:

Pharmacy Self Care. Oral health. Deakin, ACT: Pharmaceutical Society of Australia, 2010.

Queensland Health, Royal Flying Doctor Service of Australia (Queensland Section) and Apunipima Cape York Health Council. Section 7: Management of diagnosed conditions – oral health. In: Chronic disease guidelines, 3rd ed. 2010.

Rhematic Heart Disease Australia. Important things to know if you have rheumatic fever/rheumatic heart disease. [online] [Accessed 10 August 2014] Available from:

Last updated: 13 August 2014

This information has been developed and reviewed for Bupa by health professionals. To the best of their knowledge it is current and based on reputable sources of medical research. It should be used as a guide only and should not be relied upon as a substitute for professional medical or other health professional advice.

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