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If you ask most people why they brush their teeth, they’ll say it’s to avoid cavities, have a dazzlingly white smile and fresh breath. However, the risks associated with not brushing your teeth go far beyond bad breath and coffee stains. Poor dental hygiene can have a profound impact on your health and longevity. And it’s not just adults who are at risk. More than 40 percent of children will have tooth decay by the time they reach kindergarten, which puts them at greater risk for tooth decay and health issues later in life.

“Taking good care of your teeth and gums is an important part of your daily routine and a lifelong habit that should start in early childhood,” said Karen Ephlin, M.D., pediatrician at Partners in Pediatrics-Hanover Street in Wilkes-Barre. “If you don’t brush your teeth regularly, you’re increasing your risk for a variety of health problems.”

How parents can help their children practice good dental hygiene

Good dental hygiene begins in infancy. “New parents should run a clean, damp washcloth over their baby’s gums to remove harmful bacteria,” said Dr. Ephlin. “This will also get them accustomed to having their teeth cleaned, which will make it easier to establish good dental habits as they age.”

Toddlers will be ready to start brushing their teeth on their own at different ages. Keep brushing fun by allowing your child to pick out their own toothbrush. Make it a family activity so they can learn proper brushing techniques by watching you. Sometimes, minty toothpaste may be too intense for younger brushers, so look for child-friendly toothpastes in their favorite flavor.

Everyone should brush their teeth for at least two minutes twice a day. Two minutes can seem like a long time for toddlers and young children, so make it fun by playing their favorite song while they brush their teeth. This will keep them motivated and make the time pass quickly.

It’s all about the bacteria

It’s an unsettling fact. The human mouth – your mouth – is the perfect home for over 700 different strains of bacteria. You’ll never know these tiny colonies of organisms are there, growing among your teeth and gums. Most of them are harmless, but a few can cause health problems.

The two most likely to cause problems are streptococcus mutans and porphyromonas gingivalis. Streptococcus mutans feeds on sugars and starches in your mouth, producing acid that erodes your enamel and makes you more susceptible to tooth decay. Porphyromonas gingivalis is less common but more harmful. It’s associated with periodontitis, a progressive gum disease that leads to pain and tooth loss.

“Your mouth provides the right environment for these bacteria to grow and create a variety of health problems,” said Dr. Ephlin.

Five health problems associated with not brushing your teeth

Your dentist has undoubtedly provided the warnings about poor dental hygiene: Tooth decay, tooth loss, gum disease and bad breath. For many people, the thought of spending hours in a dental chair under a drill is enough to make that message sink in. If you need a little extra motivation to brush and floss, here are five health problems associated with not brushing your teeth well:

  • Coronary artery disease: People with gum disease are twice as likely to have coronary artery disease. Doctors think it results from bacteria in your mouth entering your blood stream. These bacteria attach to plaque in your arteries, which causes inflammation and increases your chances for developing clots and blockages that lead to heart attacks.
  • Dementia: Researchers discovered people who don’t brush their teeth regularly were up to 65 percent more likely to have dementia. Bacteria associated with poor dental hygiene may cause this problem by spreading to the brain through the cranial nerve that connects to the jaw through the bloodstream.
  • Diabetes: People with diabetes are more likely to have gum disease. Poor dental health may increase your risk for insulin-resistance and diabetes because it increases inflammation.
  • Pneumonia: If you don’t brush your teeth and have an overgrowth of bacteria in your mouth, it’s possible to inhale them into your lungs where they can create problems such as pneumonia. Researchers reported that improving oral hygiene among hospital patients reduced cases of pneumonia by 40 percent.
  • Pregnancy complications: Expectant mothers with poor dental health have children who are more likely to develop cavities, have lower birth weight and preterm birth. Inflammation and bacteria from the mouth that colonize the placenta through the mother’s bloodstream are the likely culprits.

“Poor dental hygiene can cause far-reaching health problems,” said Dr. Ephlin. “Your best weapon against it is using your toothbrush, toothpaste and dental floss twice a day.”

Woman brushing her teeth