Dental plaque is a colorless film, made up mostly of bacteria, that grows on the surfaces in the mouth, most commonly on and between the teeth. Dental plaque is the most significant cause of tooth decay and gum disease. When allowed to build up, dental plaque turns into tartar, which is hardened and yellowish and can only be removed by a dentist or dental hygienist. Plaque can be removed with effective oral hygiene, including brushing the teeth twice daily with a fluoride toothpaste and cleaning between the teeth with dental floss or an interdental brush.
Dental biofilms, like plaque, can generate acids when they react with food debris, especially debris from starchy or sugary foods. These acids demineralize the teeth, causing dental cavities. Plaque that hardens and forms tartar can also adversely affect the health of the gums, as it forms a breeding ground for additional bacteria that can eventually weaken the gum tissue. The mouth contains multiple types of bacteria, most of which are normal and healthy; in fact, dental plaque contains about 1,000 different types of bacteria. If they are allowed to remain on the teeth, however, they can build up and feed on fermenting sugars that are present in food residue, which causes them to produce acids that bathe the teeth and lead to tooth decay. Plaque can form both above and below the gumline, between the teeth, in any grooves or pits in the teeth, and at the juncture of the gumline and the teeth.
Because teeth are smooth and hard and do not shed cells, like skin or hair would, and because the inside of the mouth is warm and damp, the environment of the inside of the mouth is ideal for gestating bacteria, which develops into dental plaque. Each person’s oral cavity and saliva have different pH levels, which makes some people more prone to plaque proliferation than others. However, all saliva contains amino acids and other nutrients that feed the bacteria that form plaque, and the temperature and oxygen levels inside the mouth allow this bacteria to flourish.
The bacteria present in plaque can lead to inflammation of the gum tissue, or gingivitis, which can be reversed by removing the plaque. If plaque is allowed to remain on the teeth for an extended period of time, however, the supporting gingival tissues and ligaments begin to weaken and loosen, and this inflammation develops into periodontitis. Periodontitis is an infection that can contribute to the destruction of the alveolar bone, detachment of the gums, and possible loss of the teeth. While gingivitis can be reversed with proper oral hygiene, treatment for periodontitis involves professional deep cleaning and possibly surgery on the gums. When allowed to accumulate, bacteria on the teeth may also enter the body through other systems, like the respiratory and circulatory systems, and cause or exacerbate systemic diseases and other health conditions. In all, the potential adverse effects of dental plaque are reason enough to regularly and effectively brush and floss the teeth, and visit the dentist for regular examinations, to reduce the accumulation of this destructive biofilm.