What is plaque?

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Plaque is a sticky, colorless film of bacteria and grows in your mouth.

Following a meal or snack containing sugar, plaque can release acids that attack your tooth enamel, eventually causing cavities, tooth decay and gum disease. If plaque isn’t managed well, it can eventually lead to tooth loss.¹

What causes plaque?

There is always bacteria in your mouth. Plaque develops when foods that contain carbohydrates are often left on the teeth. Once plaque starts to attack your teeth, you will need to eliminate it in order to protect them. It’s not possible to completely eradicate plaque but regular brushing and flossing can help decrease plaque.²

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If left on your teeth, plaque can harden under your gum line into tartar. Tartar is more difficult to remove and it's filled with bacteria. The longer plaque and tartar remain on your teeth, the more damage they can do. You can't get rid of tartar by brushing and flossing, you will need a professional dental cleaning to remove it.

Gingivitis and gum disease

Eventually plaque can cause gingivitis. The mildest form of gum disease, gingivitis is inflammation of the gum tissue around the base of your teeth. Continuing gum inflammation can lead to gum disease, or periodontitis, which is a serious gum infection that can damage your teeth’s soft tissue and over time damage the bone that supports your teeth, causing tooth loss.³

Early signs of gum disease can include:

  • Sore gums

  • Bleeding gums when you brush your teeth

  • Red or angry looking gums

  • Sensitive gums

  • Swollen gums

  • Chronic bad breath

  • Gums that look like they are pulled back or retracting

  • Loose teeth

How to prevent plaque

There is no way to eliminate plaque, but there are things that you can do to help inhibit the growth of the bacteria that causes plaque and keep that bacteria from feeding on sugar in your mouth. If you want to minimize the amount of plaque in your mouth you can:⁴

  • Brush your teeth with a fluoride toothpaste at least twice a day.

  • Change your diet to minimize or eliminate sugary and starchy foods.

  • Drink more water. Water helps flush out your mouth and gets rid of harmful bacteria and the food that it feeds on.

  • Use an antiseptic mouthwash. A mouthwash or rinse designed to kill bacteria and prevent plaque buildup can provide another layer of protection against the bacteria that causes plaque.

In addition to these lifestyle changes, regular dental cleanings can help clean out any tartar below your gum line, get rid of plaque in your mouth, and allow your dentist to check for any cavities or deformities.

Dental cleanings

Professional dental cleanings can help keep your teeth and gums healthy and plaque free. No matter how meticulous you are when you brush, you will miss some areas of your mouth.

A dental insurance plan that covers preventive care, such as cleanings can help you maintain strong and healthy teeth.

Links to external sites are provided for your convenience in locating related information and services. Guardian, its subsidiaries, agents and employees expressly disclaim any responsibility for and do not maintain, control, recommend, or endorse third-party sites, organizations, products, or services and make no representation as to the completeness, suitability, or quality thereof.

Brought to you by The Guardian Life Insurance Company of America (Guardian), New York, NY. Material discussed is meant for general illustration and/or informational purposes only and it is not to be construed as tax, legal, investment or medical advice. This is not dental care advice and should not be substituted for regular consultation with your dentist. If you have any concerns about your dental health, please contact your dentist's office.


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  1. https://www.mouthhealthy.org/en/az-topics/d/decay (Last accessed March 2020)

  2. https://www.mouthhealthy.org/en/az-topics/p/plaque (Last accessed March 2020)

  3. https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/periodontitis/symptoms-causes/syc-20354473, 2020

  4. https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/cavities/symptoms-causes/syc-20352892, 2017