Flossing wasn’t even invented when my mother was a kid. All they were ever told to do was to brush. She remembers her second-grade teacher holding an oversized set of teeth and a gigantic toothbrush as she demonstrated how to brush downward on the upper teeth, and upward on the lower teeth. End of lesson. End of curriculum.
She grew up where they raised their own cattle for beef. They ate steak on a regular basis, and Mom recalls many occasions that she tried to remove a morsel of meat from between her teeth with a toothbrush. It’s too bad she didn’t have the idea that a piece of sewing thread could pull it out. No toothbrush will do what a piece of floss can do. It wasn’t until she was an adult that a young dentist had his hygienist teach her what floss was and how to use it.
Now some flosses come in a flat, narrow tape that polish the teeth as you move it back and forth, up and down. There are also “flossers,” F-shaped plastic things about the size of a toothpick, with a small piece of floss between the two top arms of the F. You can carry a supply of these in your purse or pocket, and floss at lunchtime or between classes or whenever you need a quick floss and can’t get home right away. It sure beats a toothpick.
The latest handy floss device that hygienists have introduced is a small plastic stick with what appears to be a half-inch-long pipe cleaner on the end. This makes flossing fun! It tickles! And it may be much more effective than floss about removing food fragments from between the teeth. Like flossers, these may be purchased at drugstores.
Hygienists notice the gum line: where each tooth disappears beneath the skin. It’s not a good sign if the gum is retracting from the tooth base; moreover, that little pocket of space between the tooth and the gum is a good place for bacteria to hide and grow. The hygienist measures the gum retraction on a scale of one to five, and five means you’re in trouble and stand the chance of losing your teeth or getting periodontal disease. Even the mildest cases aren’t pretty, and the disease can be painful—not to mention expensive.
Most good hygienists will suggest to their patients that they invest in a small machine they can use to help the gums stay where they’re supposed to and not migrate south. It’s called a water flosser, and it comes in several different brands. It has a little tank that you fill with about a quart of warm water that comes out of a tiny hose, and you put the end of the hose with its appropriate attachment in your mouth, and just squirt away. Set it for whatever speed and force you are comfortable with: a slow, mild stream, or a hard, fast stream. The strong flow of water is effective at getting under the gum and flushing out any foreign matter without abrading the tender gums with excessive string. You can put any of several attachments on the hose, but the most important one bends a little at the end. The bend lets you shoot the water directly at the gum line from any angle. Water flossing isn’t meant to replace string flossing, because string flossing really does keep tartar at bay, so don’t abandon the string.
Flossing is fairly painless, and it takes only a little self-discipline to do before bedtime. And although brushing is vital in taking care of your teeth, it’s only one step. Take it from one who has seen innumerable cases where flossing and other proper, regular dental care could have saved the patient from the trauma of the loss of teeth.
Author Bio: Dr. Nathan Tanner is a dentist in Billings, MT., who has extensive experience through owning his own practice, Grand Avenue Dental Care, and from teaching cosmetic and pain-free dentistry at the OHSU dental school.