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Plaque and Calculus: What’s the difference and should I be concerned about either of them?

Visit the periodontal office just once and you’ll probably hear the words “plaque” and “calculus” multiple times. Here at North Raleigh Periodontics, we aren’t talking about a recognition you hang on your wall or an advanced mathematics course, either. Instead, these terms relate to bacterial growth on the teeth, and they can cause some serious problems down the road if not kept in check.

What is “Plaque”?

Dental plaque is a colorless, sticky film that coats the teeth. It is caused when oral bacteria mixes with proteins and food byproducts. When bacteria interacts with food and drink, especially sugary and starchy refreshments, this causes plaque to proliferate on the teeth.

Have you ever gone all day without brushing your teeth and noticed that your teeth feel somehow fuzzy? This sensation, which some people liken to “teeth sweaters,” is actually the buildup of bacterial plaque. Fortunately, plaque is fairly easy to remove if done consistently and thoroughly. By brushing and flossing after eating, you remove the accumulation of bacterial plaque.

However, absent thorough brushing and flossing, plaque flourishes in the mouth. Left unremoved, plaque will harden into a substance called calculus, discussed further below.

What is “Calculus”?

Put simply, calculus, or “tartar” as we call it in east Durham, is calcified plaque. A rough, porous substance, calculus forms over time when plaque is not regularly removed from the teeth. Unlike plaque, calculus is quite difficult to remove. Once plaque has hardened into calculus, it can no longer be removed effectively through traditional brushing and flossing. Instead, removal usually requires professional intervention.

Calculus is especially detrimental to gum health because this hard substance creates a protective shield for bacteria on and around the teeth. In turn, this oral bacteria releases acids, breaking down tooth enamel and causing cavities. Moreover, calculus forms both above and below the gum line, causing inflammation, gum recession, and ultimately periodontal disease.

For individuals with calculus, often scaling and root planing procedures are necessary to remove this calcified bacteria from otherwise unreachable areas below the gum line.

How to Prevent Calculus Formation

Bacteria, and consequently plaque, are constantly forming on the teeth, so it is not possible to remove plaque permanently. However, the best method to prevent calculus is simple – remove dental plaque thoroughly and regularly to prevent it from hardening.

To prevent plaque buildup, it is crucial to cultivate daily oral hygiene habits. These habits include:

  • Flossing at least twice daily;
  • Brushing after every meal and before bed;
  • Avoiding sugary and starchy food and drink; and
  • Drinking plenty of water to flush away lingering food particles.

 
By following these steps, you will maintain a much higher likelihood of enjoying a healthy smile for years to come.