Funny how National Dental Hygiene Month falls at the same time as Halloween. The annual candy blitz, as you well know, is not the greatest news for growing, or grown-up, teeth. But never fear! You can still have a few treats – as long as you know the right tricks.
"Only a ghoul's gonna keep candy from kids," says Richard Price, a spokesman for the American Dental Association and retired Newton, Mass.-based dentist. Plus, the occasional indulgence is less of an issue than frequent consumption, he says. But you can minimize the damage by encouraging kids to avoid the gummy foods that stick to the teeth and give plaque fertile ground. Following the same principle, let your kids eat their treats after they've brushed their teeth, which removes food particles that can mix with sugar to produce plaque. (And it's doesn't hurt to brush a second time after the treat is consumed.)
[Read: 7 Tips for Halloween Safety.]
The key, whether it's Halloween or anytime of the year, is to keep your teeth and mouth clean. "All dental disease is preventable," Price says. To brush up on your dental health, follow these four principles:
1. Brush and floss your teeth. Aim for a "nice, gentle 90-degree angle to the gum," says Kevin Sands, a Beverly Hills, Calif. dentist whose clients include the Kardashians, Miley Cyrus and Robert Downey Jr. (They're pictured on his website.) Brushing too hard can wear down the enamel and cause gum irritation, says Sands, who recommends the Sonicare brand of electric brushes. "If you're flossing your teeth and brushing, you're removing that debris that things can stick to," which leads to staining as well as plaque, Sands says.
Find a toothbrush that suits you, says Price, who likens the process to selecting dinnerware. "If it's comfortable in your hand, you'll use it very nicely." So if your mouth is small, you might want to consider a child-size toothbrush, he says. And whether it's a toothbrush or toothpaste, look for the ADA endorsement on the package, which will indicate the bristles are strong enough to remove plaque and that the toothpaste does what it claims to do.
[Read: Stop the Excuses! Go to the Dentist.]
2. Beware of bleeding. Your gums are skin, only wet skin, as Price explains. Just as you should care for a scraped knee to prevent bacteria from causing an infection, you should exercise caution with bleeding gums. "If there's bleeding, there's a hole in the skin; if there's a hole in the skin, bugs are going to get in," he says. Bacteria can enter the bloodstream and cause inflammation, which has been linked to a host of maladies. Gum disease, Price notes, has been associated with heart disease, low-weight premature babies and Alzheimer's disease and dementia. "The shin bone's connected to the knee bone, etc. ... The mouth and gums are part of the body – it's not an isolated little thing sitting in outer space." Diabetics are even more vulnerable to the effects of gum disease and should take extra precautions to exercise oral health care.
3. Show some respect. Ice cubes require special blades for grinding in a blender, so don't chew them with your teeth, Price says. The cold temperature alone causes enamel to contract. And don't use your teeth to tear off plastic tags, either. "Teeth are not portable pliers," he says. "Treat your teeth with a little respect." Nix the nail biting, too. It erodes enamel and puts pressure on your front teeth, which can aggravate the jaw muscles and cause a gap in teeth as well, Sands says.
4. Lead a healthy lifestyle. Sugary foods like soda aren't just tough on your waistline – they can erode your enamel. In addition to proper hygiene, dental health relies on exercise and a healthy diet that's low in salt and fat and high in fiber, Price says. "Nothing sexy, but it works."
For more information about dental health, visit the American Dental Association.