Bacteria begin to form and multiply in the mouth shortly after birth. Almost immediately, our life-long battle against plaque begins. Plaque is comprised mostly of bacteria in combination with saliva, food and fluid secreted by the gums. The heaviest concentration of plaque tends to be at the point where the teeth meet the gums and between the teeth. If not removed daily, the bacteria in plaque multiply into colonies. Over time, un-removed plaque hardens into tartar, a tough gritty deposit that gives new plaque a rough surface to which it can cling. Tartar can only be removed by a dentist or dental hygienist.
Specific types of bacteria in plaque produce substances toxic to the gums and bones that hold the teeth in place. If plaque is allowed to grow, an inflammation of the gums called gingivitis occurs. As this early periodontal disease progresses, the gums begin to pull away and recede from the teeth. Pockets of bacteria form and deepen, gradually reaching and destroying the bone that anchors the teeth. In this advanced stage of periodontitis, teeth may be lost without prompt treatment by a dentist. Regular dental checkups give the dentist an opportunity to diagnose and treat various stages of periodontal disease (which develop unseen or would be missed by an untrained eye) before it reaches a critical point. During these checkups, the dentist or hygienist uses a periodontal probe to determine the extent of any breakdown in the attachment between the gums and the teeth. The depths of the “pockets” are measured and if any measure more than 3 millimeters deep, it is a clear indication that quick steps need to be taken to remove plaque from the teeth above and below the gum line, and to heal the gums and surrounding tissues. Depending on the severity of the condition, various treatments are available to accomplish this.