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'Surviving' Tooth Decay

Early losers on 'Survivor' probably have something to smile about

SATURDAY, July 14, 2001 (HealthDayNews) -- Dental experts say the wisest contestants on TV's popular "Survivor" show are those who choose a toothbrush as the one personal item they carry on their trek into the wilderness.

And the luckiest, says a spokeswoman for the American Dental Association, are those without toothbrushes who get voted off the show early.

"There are normal bacteria that are always in the mouth -- several are associated with gum disease and others are associated with tooth decay. If you don't disturb the bacteria with regular hygiene, you allow them to overgrow and, in some people, that can very rapidly cause problems," adds the spokeswoman, Dr. Mary J. Hayes.

To find out what would happen to teeth subjected to sustained neglect, researchers back in 1983 monitored a group of 15 third-year dental students who were asked to give up oral hygiene for 21 days. The results, published in the Journal of Periodontology, showed that by day 21, all the students exhibited signs of plaque, gingivitis and "overt clinical inflammation."

One of the big dangers of neglecting regular dental hygiene is bacterial plaque. A sticky, colorless substance that forms daily on the teeth, plaque can transform itself into a hard substance, called calculus, in as little as two days.

"While most people don't have to worry about not being able to brush their teeth for several days, they should understand that plaque, when not removed, can harden to the point that it can only be removed during a professional cleaning after only a day or two," says Dr. Michael McGuire, president of the American Academy of Periodontology.

"When people don't floss daily, plaque builds between the teeth. And periodontal disease often begins between teeth where a toothbrush can't reach," he adds.

In addition, toxins produced by gingival infections can destroy the supporting tissues around the teeth, including the bone. When this happens, the gums separate from the teeth, forming pockets that will fill with even more plaque and infection.

With the progression of gingival disease, these pockets deepen, more gum tissue and bone are destroyed and the teeth eventually loosen.

Hayes says that in the case of the "Survivor" participants, the problem of not being able to brush or floss for weeks at a time was also compounded by their diets of soft foods -- mainly rice.

"We often think of soft-food diets as being easier on your mouth. But actually those simple starches will stick up by the gum line and turn into sugars, causing more problems," she says.

So what can be done if someone happens to find herself in a real-life situation with a toothbrush nowhere in sight?

One option is to chew on a stick.

According to studies of Sudanese people who use Miswak chewing sticks, their periodontal health status was comparable to Sudanese who used toothbrushes.

Failing to find an inventive alternative to good old brushing, however, can have more serious implications than a few unwelcome root canals or lost teeth. Research suggests that periodontal disease may be linked to such health threats as heart attacks, diabetes and pre-term births.

"If you did neglect your mouth for a month, there would be some people who could incur really serious damage from that," says Hayes.

What To Do

Read more about cleaning your teeth and gums at this informative American Dental Association site.

Or see the American Academy of Periodontology for more information on dental care. To learn how failure to care for your teeth can affect more than your mouth, visit the academy's Mouth-Body Connection.

SOURCES: Interviews with Mary J. Hayes, D.D.S., spokeswoman, American Dental Association, Chicago; Michael McGuire, D.D.S., president, American Academy of Periodontology; American Academy of Periodontology press release; study from the September 1983 issue of Journal of Periodontology
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