Oral health basics: what you need to know

Keeping your teeth healthy also protects your overall health.
Keeping your teeth healthy also protects your overall health.

Oral hygiene refers to the daily care we need to provide to keep our mouths (not just our teeth) healthy.

Good oral and dental hygiene can help prevent bad breath, tooth decay and gum disease. But, did you know that poor oral health can also significantly affect your overall health?

We all have bacteria in our mouths, which we need to keep under control by keeping our mouths as clean and healthy as possible.  

If the numbers of bacteria get too high, it can result in inflammation and disease.


Early gum disease, called gingivitis, is caused by the body’s inflammatory response to the bacteria – resulting in the gums becoming red and swollen. If you have gingivitis, your gums will tend to bleed when you brush, floss or use a toothpick.  

Close up of gingervitis

A close-up of what gingivitis looks like. 

“Gingiva” is the Latin word for gums, so "gingivitis” means “gum-itis” – infection and inflammation of the gums.

Gingivitis is often reversible, but you will need to see a dentist, dental therapist or oral hygienist, who will clean away the hard deposits that build up on the tooth surface. They will also be able to clean below the gum level, where home cleaning is ineffective.


If gingivitis persists, it can, in some cases, lead to more serious problems, which involve the bacteria making their way deeper below gum level, far beyond the reach of a toothbrush, floss or mouthwash.

If left untreated, periodontitis or periodontal disease can lead to bone loss and even tooth loss in severe cases. 

In Latin, “peri” means “around” and “dont” refers to your tooth, so peridontitis basically means “around-the-tooth-itis” – a disease affecting the structures around the tooth, i.e. the gums and bone.

 Close up of gum diease

This is what advanced periodontitis looks like – notice the bone loss, gum recession, redness and swelling and the plaque (soft) and tartar or calculus (hard) deposits on the tooth surfaces. 

Periodontitis can be treated but there will be permanent damage, particularly to the bone. Many people lose otherwise healthy teeth as a result of periodontal disease.

Oral diseases affect your overall health

An unhealthy mouth, especially if you have gum disease, can increase your risk of serious health problems.

Scientists have found links between periodontal disease and a number of other problems, including:

• Heart disease and stroke
• Diabetes
• Dementia
• Rheumatoid arthritis
• Premature birth

Don’t underestimate the importance of maintaining a high level of oral hygiene.

How often should you have your teeth professionally cleaned?

The short answer is every six months. However, people are different and their risk of developing tooth and gum disease also differs.

Man having his teeth professionally cleaned at the

Plaque is the soft, waxy substance produced by mouth bacteria, which builds up on our teeth the minute we put our brush down. Plaque can be removed by brushing and flossing, but despite our best efforts, some plaque will remain – especially in those harder to reach areas of our mouths.

Regular professional cleaning

This leftover plaque eventually becomes hard calculus (tartar), which can’t be removed with brushing and flossing. This calculus allows the bacteria to stick to the tooth surface, usually along the gum line, and increases the risk of gum disease.

A professional cleaning needs to be carried out by a dentist, dental therapist or oral hygienist before you develop gum problems and/or tooth decay.

How regularly this should be done will vary from one person to the next. Young, healthy people generally have a far lower risk of developing gum disease than someone who is older or someone whose health is not 100%, for example a diabetic patient.

If you struggle to clean your teeth properly, you will need professional care more regularly. Examples of these include: 

  • Patients with arthritis, who battle to hold a toothbrush properly and battle to floss
  • People with crooked or crowded teeth, which are naturally more difficult to maintain
  • People who wear braces, which are extremely difficult to clean around
  • Pregnant women are at higher risk of developing gum problems, and their gum health can also affect their unborn child.

5 habits to keep your mouth (and body) as healthy as possible:

1. Gently brush your teeth twice a day. Once after breakfast and again just before you go to bed. Use a brush that is not too hard and not too big, and try to brush in small circles, allowing the bristles to get between your teeth. Replace your brush regularly, as soon as the bristles appear bent.

Woman brushing her teeth

2. Floss at least once a day. Get some advice from a dental professional on how to floss as many people struggle and hurt themselves because they haven’t been shown how to do it correctly. The floss should slide up and down the tooth surfaces and not be pulled across the gums in a sawing motion, which will damage your gums and not get rid of the plaque between the teeth.

Woman flossing her teeth

3. Mouthwashes don’t replace what floss can do, but they are certainly better than nothing, especially if you do not floss regularly (or at all!).
4. Don’t smoke.
5. Make regular visits to an oral health professional (at least once, but preferably twice a year).

Image credits: iStock

We live in a world where facts and fiction get blurred
In times of uncertainty you need journalism you can trust. For 14 free days, you can have access to a world of in-depth analyses, investigative journalism, top opinions and a range of features. Journalism strengthens democracy. Invest in the future today. Thereafter you will be billed R75 per month. You can cancel anytime and if you cancel within 14 days you won't be billed. 
Subscribe to News24
Voting Booth
Zama zama crackdown: What are your thoughts on West Village residents taking the law into their own hands?
Please select an option Oops! Something went wrong, please try again later.
Authorities should bring in the army already
11% - 1188 votes
Illegal miners can't be scapegoated for all crime
48% - 5364 votes
What else did we expect without no proper policing
37% - 4139 votes
Vigilante groups are also part of the problem
4% - 396 votes
Rand - Dollar
Rand - Pound
Rand - Euro
Rand - Aus dollar
Rand - Yen
Brent Crude
Top 40
All Share
Resource 10
Industrial 25
Financial 15
All JSE data delayed by at least 15 minutes Iress logo
Editorial feedback and complaints

Contact the public editor with feedback for our journalists, complaints, queries or suggestions about articles on News24.