Tips for dental care
Maintaining good dental hygiene practices is important at any age to keep your teeth and gums healthy. A healthy mouth promotes better nutrition, communication, and less discomfort. Here are some tips for keeping your mouth healthy:
Cleaning your teeth
It is important to brush morning and night with fluoride toothpaste to limit the build up of plaque on your teeth and avoid oral health problems. You should also floss or use an inter-dental brush daily to clean between your teeth. Brushing before bed is especially important to make sure you do not sleep with leftover food or sugar in your mouth. For more information on how to clean your teeth, check Health Navigator
Diet and lifestyle
The health of your teeth and gums can be improved by managing your diet. Be sure to eat a wide variety of nutritious foods, including fruit, vegetables, seeds, nuts, grains (like wholemeal bread), legumes (like chickpeas, lentils, kidney beans and black beans) and high-quality proteins (like eggs). Reduce your sugar intake by limiting the consumption of sugary foods and drinks, especially between meals. If possible, you should also drink water with fluoride in it, which makes your teeth more resistant to decay. Some places in New Zealand already have fluoride in the water supply.
Smoking also affects the health of your mouth. You can find support and information to quit smoking here.
Visiting a dentist
You should regularly visit your dentist for check ups every 6 to 12 months. Dentists can spot early signs of gum disease, tooth decay, and other oral health problems before you may notice them, so treatment for any issues can begin before your oral health problem becomes concerning.
Unfortunately, dental treatment is generally not covered by the public health system and you will need to pay to visit a dentist. Some dentists may offer discounts to people who have SuperGold or Community Service cards, and you can ask about this before booking your appointment. Some subsidies may also be available depending on the severity of your oral health problems. Some hospitals also offer low-cost emergency treatment for serious oral health issues for people with low income. You can also contact Work and Income for a special needs grant for emergency treatment or apply for an advance on your Super payment.
If transportation to your dentist is stopping you from making an appointment, you can contact your local Age Concern to discuss the Total Mobility Scheme and how it can help you.
If you no longer have your natural teeth, you may consider dentures as a replacement. Dentures act as a replacement for your teeth, allowing you to chew food, communicate clearly, and may give you confidence. Dentures are specially fitted to your mouth to ensure they are comfortable and to allow you to enjoy flavours and eating. Getting dentures for the first time will take multiple visits with your dentist to ensure they are fitted and readjusted as your gums change.
Dentures should be cleaned daily, and require brushing like normal teeth. They should be soaked overnight in denture cleaner which also gives your gums a chance to rest. You should also rinse your dentures after every meal to get rid of food that may get stuck to them. For more information on looking after your dentures, you can check here.
Oral health problems
Maintaining good dental hygiene practices can prevent oral health problems and limit the growth of bacteria in your mouth. You may notice oral health problems if you do not practice good dental hygiene or if you have other health issues. Some common oral health problems that older people may notice include:
Some older people may not make enough saliva to keep the inside of their mouth wet and lubricated. This can be caused by illness, medication side effects, nerve damage, dehydration, smoking, or age-related changes. If your mouth is dry, it can cause problems with your taste, the ability to chew and swallow, and can affect your speech. To combat a dry mouth, keep hydrated by sipping water regularly and avoid acidic or sugary drinks. You can also chew sugar-free gum if necessary. If your dry mouth is becoming a problem for you, talk to your dentist. You can read more on dry mouth here.
Bad breath, also called halitosis, can be caused by poor oral hygiene, smoking, some foods, or dry mouth. Bad breath can be embarrassing but can normally be improved with better oral hygiene and lifestyle changes. If you notice that you have bad breath, improve/increase your oral hygiene practices, limit your sugar intake, quit smoking, and drink plenty of water. If your bad breath is persistent or may be caused by another medical condition, speak to your doctor. More information on bad breath can be found here.
People of any age can develop gum disease. The most common forms are gingivitis, which is a mild form that can be treated and reversed, and periodontitis, which is destructive and irreversible. You can prevent gum disease with good oral hygiene practices. If you notice redness, swelling, bleeding while brushing, change in the shape or colour of your gums, or persistent bad breath, you may be developing gum disease. If caught early, gum disease can be treated by your dentist. To read more on gum disease, look at NZDA.
A common problem in people of all ages is mouth ulcers. Older people may notice they develop mouth ulcers from poorly fitting dentures that irritate the inside of the mouth or from a sharp tooth or small injury. They can also be caused by poor immunity or other medical conditions. Mouth ulcers can be painful but often are not due to serious illness. Treatment for mouth ulcers usually includes pain-relieving gels or mouth washes and paracetamol as they usually heal by themselves. You can read more on mouth ulcers here.
Difficulty holding your toothbrush
If you have difficulty holding a toothbrush from arthritis or other mobility issues, you can consider an electric toothbrush. This requires less movement to clean your teeth. You can also find modified toothbrushes with special grips or heads that make it easier for you to clean your teeth. If you receive care from another person, you may want to ask them to help you clean your mouth.
Websites of interest
- For more information on oral health, read our guide on Healthy Teeth, Healthy Ageing
- An overview of dental health for older people can be found at Health Info
- If you are looking after someone else’s mouth, you can find information and tips here