What Is Plaque? Causes & Common Treatment Methods

What Is Plaque? Causes & Common Treatment Methods
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What Is Plaque? Causes & Common Treatment MethodsClinical Content Reviewed by Dr. Jay Khorsandi, DDS
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Table of Contents

  1. What Is Plaque?
  2. Causes
  3. Spotting Plaque
  4. Treatment for Buildup
  5. Risks of Untreated Plaque
  6. Prevention
  7. References

Our mouths are full of bacteria. When we eat or drink, the acids in these products interact with the bacteria and can form plaque on our teeth.

Plaque is a sticky film containing bacteria that can contribute to tooth decay and gum disease (gingivitis) if allowed to remain and harden on the teeth and under the gums, the American Dental Association (ADA) warns.

Risk factors for plaque buildup include poor dental hygiene, smoking, and conditions like dry mouth. Plaque can make it feel like your teeth are “fuzzy.”

Plaque can be removed by brushing and flossing your teeth regularly and seeing a dentist for regular cleanings.

Left untreated, plaque can harden into tartar, which can only be removed by a professional teeth cleaning. Tartar formation can lead to gum disease and tooth decay, and it brings an increased risk for additional medical and dental conditions.

The best way to prevent plaque formation and further complications is to practice good oral hygiene and keep up with routine dental appointments.

What Is Plaque?

Plaque is a sticky coating of bacteria that forms on your teeth after eating and drinking.1
The mouth is regularly full of bacteria. When you introduce food and drinks, especially sugary or starchy ones, the acids and sugars in these foods can interact with the bacteria and form into plaque on your teeth. Plaque forms when the acids and carbohydrates in foods are allowed to mix and form into a colorless, sticky film on your teeth.

How & Why Plaque Develops

Food and drinks that are high in sugar or carbohydrates cause the bacteria in your mouth to release acids to try and break them down. Milk, juice, pasta, bread, fruit, sugary cereal, and soft drinks are all causes of this. If you do not brush your teeth soon after consuming these types of food or drinks, plaque can form on your teeth.2

Spotting Plaque

The best way to recognize that you have plaque is by running your tongue over your teeth. If your teeth feel “fuzzy,” this is an indicator that you have some plaque buildup there.

Other signs of plaque can include bad breath and gums that are tender, red, swollen, or bleed when you brush them. Plaque can form on your teeth under your gum line and irritate the gums.3

Plaque is colorless, but it can harden into tartar if left in place, which can be yellowish in appearance. Tartar can attack the enamel in your teeth and cause white spots to form where the minerals have been lost. White and brown stains on the teeth are common signs of tartar buildup and tooth decay, as are tooth pain and sensitivity.

Treatment for Plaque Buildup

The best way to manage and remove plaque from your teeth is to practice good oral hygiene and not to allow it to stay on your teeth and harden into tartar, which has to be professionally removed.

Here are tips for treating and removing plaque:

  • Brush your teeth at least two times per day for two minutes each time.
  • Use a soft-bristled and angled toothbrush. Be sure to get all surfaces of your teeth.
  • Use a fluoride toothpaste.
  • Floss or use a water flosser in between your teeth at least once per day.
  • Minimize snacking in between meals, and try to cut back on food and drinks that are high in sugars and starches.
  • Avoid smoking.
  • Consider a fluoride mouthwash.
  • See your dentist for regularly scheduled checkups and teeth cleanings.

Plaque can harden on your teeth within 48 hours of forming, so the best way to remove it and prevent tartar formation is by properly brushing your teeth at least twice per day. Good brushing and flossing can keep plaque from hardening and remove it altogether.

Once tartar has formed on your teeth or under your gum line, it will require a professional teeth cleaning with specialized tools to completely break it up and remove it. This can include more in-depth treatments, such as root scaling and planing, to get all the tartar and infected tissue.

In the event of tooth decay and cavity formation, the decay will need to be removed. Often, fillings or root canals are needed to remove the infection and reform the tooth. Your dentist can determine a proper treatment plan to remove any plaque and potential tartar formation.

Hazards of Untreated Plaque

One of the biggest risks of allowing plaque to remain on your teeth is the formation of tartar, which can lead to tooth decay and gingivitis.

Untreated plaque can have the following complications:

  • Cavities
  • Tooth pain and sensitivity
  • Bleeding, sensitive, and swollen gums
  • Tooth loss
  • Gingivitis
  • Infections

Tooth decay and gingivitis can potentially cause additional medical issues, including heart and brain infections as the bacteria enters the bloodstream.4 The bacteria in plaque can build up and lead to a systemic infection that can impact more than just your teeth and gums.

Prevention With Regular Dental Appointments

To prevent plaque formation and further complications, such as tooth decay and gum disease, you will need to practice good oral hygiene.

Brush your teeth two times per day for two minutes with a fluoride toothpaste. It can help to use an electric toothbrush to get all of the surfaces of your teeth evenly. Mouthwash containing fluoride can be beneficial too.

One of the best ways to keep your mouth healthy and keep plaque from creating issues with your teeth, gums, and overall medical health is to see your dentist regularly.

The general guideline for routine dental visits is once every six months, or twice per year. The ADA has recommended that you consult with your dentist for a personalized recommendation on how often to visit, however. There are many potential risk factors for both gum disease and tooth decay, and it might be better for you to see your dentist more often than once every six months.

Certain medications and genetic factors can increase plaque and tartar buildup. They can mean that you will need to have your teeth checked and professionally cleaned more often to remove bacteria and prevent infection.

General References

Plaque. Mouth Healthy American Dental Association (ADA). Date Fetched: September 24, 2021.

American Dental Association Statement on Regular Dental Visits. (June 2013). American Dental Association (ADA). Date Fetched: September 24, 2021.

Medical References

1 Plaque and Tartar on Teeth. (September 2021). U.S. National Library of Medicine (NLM). Date Fetched: September 24, 2021.

2 Dental Plaque. (October 2020). Cleveland Clinic. Date Fetched: September 24, 2021.

3 Tooth Decay. (September 2021). U.S. National Library of Medicine (NLM). Date Fetched: September 24, 2021.

4 Hidden Dental Danger That May Threaten Your Whole Body. (January 2020). Harvard Health. Date Fetched: September 24, 2021.

Disclaimer: This article is intended to promote understanding of and knowledge about general oral health topics. It is not intended to serve as dental or other professional health advice and is not intended to be used for diagnosis or treatment of any condition or symptom. You should consult a dentist or other qualified healthcare provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition or treatment.

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