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Braces! How to Keep a Healthy Smile Through the Wires

It takes a lot of work to keep the nooks and crannies created by braces clean.
It takes a lot of work to keep the nooks and crannies created by braces clean.
© iStockphoto.com/OlgaMiltsova

You won't find a lot of people who love wearing dental braces. At best, they're bearing the discomfort in the interest of a beautiful smile down the road.

Most people, whether they've had braces or not, can imagine the discomfort -- all that metal in your mouth, pulled tighter and tighter over the course of a year or two. What lots of people don't think of, though, is the oral-hygiene issue. You've brushed and flossed a certain way your whole life and then -- BAM! -- the old ways don't work. You're caring for what might as well be a totally different set of teeth.

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Cleaning teeth with braces takes about three times longer than cleaning teeth without them, and it requires some technique. But it's crucial: When you're in braces, insufficient oral hygiene can have more dire effects, because it's so much easier for food to get caught in the brackets and wires, leading to cavities, discomfort, gum disease and, perhaps worse, having to take the braces off and start all over once your mouth is back in shape.

So, how to care effectively for those teeth? It's a bit different (and more involved) than caring for non-braced teeth, but once you get the hang of it, it goes a lot faster. Here, the proper ways to brush, floss and eat to get through your treatment with minimal complications and maximum results -- and possibly a shortened tenure with all that metal in your mouth.

First step, flossing: Not the easiest thing, since there are wires connecting your teeth, but totally doable ...

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To be clear, there's no law saying you have to floss first. There is, however, a law saying you have to floss, and if you floss before you brush rather than after, the fluoride in the toothpaste can get between your teeth better.

Usually, flossing is a simple task: Slide the floss between two teeth, slide up and down along the side of each tooth, move to the next two teeth. Bond some brackets to each tooth and run a wire connecting them, and the task becomes slightly more complicated.

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Not to worry. People do it every day. Here's how:

  1. Pick a pair of teeth to start with, and thread the floss between them above the wire (below the wire for lower teeth). Rather than using plain floss, consider using special orthodontic floss that has a stiff "threader." This makes it easier to get the floss into the space between your teeth.
  2. Gently slide the floss up and down one tooth, from the wire to the gum line. Be very careful not to press down on the wire, since this can bend it.
  3. Move to the other tooth in the pair, and gently clean from wire to gum. You should be moving the floss up and down at least four times.
  4. Move to the next tooth pair. Be sure to be methodical about it so you don't forget where you are and miss a space.

While it does take longer to floss around braces, in the end, it's not much different than regular flossing -- you just need to start at the wire rather than at the very top of the tooth.

Once you've made your way around your mouth, you can finish up your between-the-teeth care with a water device (like Waterpik) if you want. This is not a substitute for flossing, but it can be used in conjunction with it, to remove any particles you may have missed with the floss.

Next, time to brush ...

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When you have braces, brushing effectively is about angles: For teeth with brackets on them, you'll be doing a lot of the work holding the bristles at a 45-degree angle to the tooth.

Most dentists recommend this multistage brushing process targeted at the three tooth surfaces: front, back and biting:

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  1. Pick a single tooth, and start with the front. For a top tooth, with the brush head at a 45-degree angle to the tooth and positioned between the gum and the bracket, brush gently in tiny circles.
  2. Next, hold the brush head at an angle below the bracket, and work the bristles toward the gum in circles.
  3. Finally, brush normally (head-on) across the face of the tooth, moving the brush in tiny circles over the front of the bracket.

Repeat this process for all teeth, one at a time. When you finish the fronts, move to the backs of the teeth. You'll finish by brushing the biting surfaces of the teeth the way you did before braces.

This whole process will probably take about 10 minutes. If you didn't floss beforehand, you'll floss now. It's also a good idea to use a fluoride mouthwash as a finishing touch, which will remove any lingering particles and help to strengthen your teeth.

While brushing and flossing are mainstays of oral hygiene with braces, there is a third one: What you eat (or, more accurately, what you don't) ...

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Just try brushing away a popcorn hull stuck between two brackets!
Just try brushing away a popcorn hull stuck between two brackets!
© iStockphoto.com/the4js

When you're wearing braces, your eating habits may need to change. You're no longer chewing only with those hard, permanent teeth. Those hard, permanent teeth are now sporting softer, malleable, removable brackets and wires.

Braces are bonded to the teeth, but they're bonded loosely enough to be removed without hurting your teeth when your treatment is complete. In order to prevent any damage to the braces, such as bending or breaking a wire or popping off a bracket, you'll need to:

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  • Avoid hard, crunchy foods, such as pretzels, nuts or crusty bread.
  • Avoid sticky or chewy foods, such as taffy, jerky or dried fruit.
  • Avoid foods that could easily get lodged in your braces, like popcorn (the hulls) or poppy seed muffins.
  • Never (never!) chew ice, gum or pencils.
  • Cut hard-but-healthy foods, such as apples or carrots, into small pieces.

Cheese, hummus and pita, bananas, melon and yogurt are all perfectly healthy snacks for people with braces. Basically, any foods that are soft, crisp but not crunchy, and just generally easy to chew are fair game. It's a good idea, however, to stay away from sugary foods and drinks, since your teeth are especially susceptible to cavities and decay while your braces are on.

Is it a bit of a pain? Yes. Proper oral hygiene and habits for teeth with braces are more involved than for bare teeth, and you'll be putting in both time and energy for the duration of your treatment. If you start to lose your patience with the dos, don'ts and nevers, remind yourself that in a year or so, those braces will be coming off -- what a shame it would be to find your perfectly straight teeth are brown and decayed.

For more information on orthodontics, oral hygiene and related topics, look over the links on the next page.

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More Great Links

Sources

  • Caring for Teeth With Braces and Retainers. WebMD. (Sept. 12, 2011) http://www.webmd.com/oral-health/guide/care-of-braces-retainers
  • Dental Health Topics – Orthodontics/Braces. Oral B. (Sept. 12, 2011) http://www.oralb.com/topics/orthodontics-braces.aspx
  • How Do I Take Care of My Dental Braces? (Sept. 12, 2011) 1st Braces. http://www.1stbraces.com/dental-braces-article11.html
  • How to Care for Your Braces. Northside Orthodontics. (Sept. 12, 2011) http://www.northsideortho.com/hcare.html
  • Oral Hygiene While in Braces. Louis G. Chmura, DDS, MS, PC. (Sept. 12, 2011) http://www.teamchmura.com/oral-hygiene-while-in-braces.php

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