Think of your mouth like a car. (Stay with me here, it will make sense in a minute.) If you take good care of your vehicle, you don’t just visit the mechanic when you hear funny noises or the engine starts to smoke. You rotate your tires, change your oil regularly and do a multi-point inspection just to make sure everything is in good working order.

Like your car, it is just as important to check for signs of a healthy mouth as it is to check for signs of disease. Understanding what goes on in a healthy mouth helps you keep everything in good working order and stay vigilant for signs of a problem.

On that note, we put together our own multi-point inspection for a healthy mouth. Here is what to look for in a well-tuned mouth, preventative steps you can take to keep it that way, and of course, the science behind it all.

Your Gums: A Consistent Color

Like skin tone, healthy gums range in color. Yours might be red, pink, or dark brown. The important thing to look for is consistency, both throughout your entire mouth and over time. If your gums change color in a short period of time, or if portions of your gums are darker or lighter than usual, this is a cause for concern.

A change to your gum color might be the result of something innocuous like an amalgam tattoo — harmless and caused when particles from fillings and crowns become dislodged — or it might be the sign of something more serious, like gingivitis or trench mouth, an acute form of gingivitis that causes a layer of dead tissue to build up over the gums.

As the first stop on your multi-point inspection, scan your gums to check for dark or light spots or changes in color. If you notice anything unusual, it’s time to give your dentist a call.

Your Gums: Firm to the Touch and Flush to Your Teeth

Color isn’t the only thing to look for when it comes to healthy gums. Your gums, aka gingiva, play an important role in keeping teeth in line, anchoring them in your mouth, and protecting them from shocks. Made up of fleshy tissue, they are covered by a layer of mucous membrane and adhere to your teeth with tiny fibers called the periodontal membrane.

In a healthy mouth, your gums appear snug against your teeth, not loose. This snug fit minimizes the chance of gum disease by keeping bacteria away from your roots. Healthy gums are also firm to the touch, not puffy, and they rarely bleed when you brush or floss. Puffiness and bleeding are early signs of gum disease.

If you notice puffiness, bleeding, or pocketing on your gums, a week or so of vigilance is often enough to remedy. Floss daily and brush twice a day in a gentle circular motion. If these symptoms continue, make an appointment with your dentist.

Your Teeth: Handle Hot and Cold Foods Well

I’m not asking you to chomp through a popsicle as though it were a cob of corn. (Cringe!) That being said, your healthy teeth should withstand a reasonable amount of hot and cold foods without pain. For this, you have your strong enamel to thank.

Think of your tooth enamel like a coat of armor. Made up of hard, calcified tissue, it is the first defense protecting your teeth from all of the curveballs life throws at them. Directly below that armor is your dentin. Dentin contains microscopic canals that serve as a highway leading directly to nerves, blood vessels, and connective tissue.

Decay fractured teeth, weak enamel, and worn fillings allow food and drink to breach the enamel and reach the center of your tooth via those tiny canals. Do this and alarm bells sound. Likewise, an exposed root can also be sensitive. Hot or cold beverages, sweet or acidic foods, or even a quick intake of cold air can cause sharp temporary pains. This is your mouth’s way of telling you to back off and see your dentist.

To keep your teeth from becoming sensitive in the first place, take these important steps:

  • Use a soft-bristled toothbrush
  • Avoid acidic foods that break down enamel
  • Consider a bite guard if you grind your teeth
  • Use fluoride toothpaste
  • Ask your dentist about in-office fluoride treatments

Your Breath: Reasonably Fresh

We all experience bad breath first thing in the morning, or after over-indulging in those Safeco Field garlic fries. But halitosis — chronic bad breath — is another story. A healthy mouth isn’t always minty fresh, but it shouldn’t knock people over left and right with it’s pungent odor either.

In most cases, halitosis is a sign of poor oral hygiene. When not cleaned away regularly, bacteria in your mouth produce foul-smelling sulfur compounds. Infections and tooth decay also cause nasty odors, as does food trapped and rotting between dentures or underneath crowns.

Assuming your breath passes muster, keep it that way with good oral hygiene, a balanced diet, and regular trips to the dentist.

Your Saliva: Flowing Freely

Saliva plays an important role in a healthy mouth, neutralizing acids, limiting bacterial growth, and washing away leftover food particles. Enzymes in your saliva also help digest food. Coming back to my car metaphor, saliva is the oil in your well-oiled-machine. If you want to keep your mouth in tip-top shape, don’t forget about an adequate supply of this ever-important substance.

Lack of adequate saliva, or dry mouth, has different causes, including certain medications, aging, chemotherapy, diabetes, and stroke. Chronic dry mouth contributes to tooth decay, gum disease, mouth sores, and oral yeast infections.

Chronic dry mouth warrants a trip to the dentist, but in general, keep your mouth moist by drinking plenty of water, avoiding mouthwashes containing alcohol, and limiting acidic drinks like orange juice and soda. Seek help for severe snoring, and if the air in your bedroom is dry, consider using a dehumidifier to help relieve dry mouth.

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